A Theology of Consciousness

by John Lampard.

I have never been any good at philosophy, but am aware that different philosophies undergird theological ‘constructions’. In the past, for example, theologies have been built on the philosophies of Aristotle or Plato. In the last century theologians have used the work of different philosophers as a basis for their theology. For example Moltmann used the philosophy of Bloch and Bultmann and others the philosophy of Heidegger.

The problem of making theology relevant to people’s perception of the world we live in is that there is no ‘base’ or commonly accepted ‘experience’ on which a widely accepted philosophy (or theology) can be grounded. Science, and the scientific method, have been wonderfully successful in creating the modern world, and the way in which we perceive it. The methodology of rational based science has made it very difficult for theology based on a philosophy other than a scientific one to find credibility in today’s world. Is there perhaps an answer? Is there a possibility of a theological approach which is guided or underpinned by a rational, science-based philosophy?

What led me to begin to explore this position has been my abiding interest in the science of cosmology (and I only have an ‘O’ level in science). I am fascinated to discover how our understanding of the nature of the vast expanding and deeply mysterious universe can somehow be incorporated in theology, as it was before Galileo. Can the queen of science (theology) regain her throne?

My interest was aroused when I heard a radio programme, and then read, Philip Goff’s Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Conscience, Rider, 2019, £14.99. Goff has no religious belief, but time and again he is crying out for a way of filling the void. He ends his book with the words, ‘I cannot help being excited by the possibility that… the yearnings of faith and the rationality of science might finally come into harmony.’ (p.216). That is very much where I stand.

I have purposely missed out a vital part of Goff’s quote because it is initially so off-putting and needs explanation. It refers to a worldview of ‘panpsychism.’ I have to admit that the objection to this word by my spell-checker and my own suspicion of anything associated with ‘psychics’ and ‘pan’ in theology is immediately off-putting. But I hope you will persist with my reflection.

‘Panpsychism’ is the study of consciousness, and has been around for centuries. It is based on the scientific observation of the extraordinary ability of so much of the created order to be aware of its environment, and often of itself. This ranges from human beings to animals, plants, and to a coronavirus, and Goff argues further down the chain to inanimate objects, right down to sub-atomic particles. He refuses to limit consciousness to ‘ert’ or living matter and he includes the ‘inert’. He offers as evidence the totally mysterious ‘quantum entanglement’ of two electrons which light-years apart can still ‘influence’ or have a ‘consciousness’ of each other. Particle physicists scratch their heads over this apparent measure of ‘consciousness.’

Galileo’s ‘error’ was that his philosophy created physical science (which has been wonderfully successful) by setting sensory qualities outside its domain of enquiry. Science deals with quantities, not qualities. Goff quotes Alfred Russell Wallace who wrote in 1870, ‘There is no escape from this dilemma – either all matter is conscious, or consciousness is something distinct from matter.’ Goff’s answer is that all matter is conscious, and some measure of consciousness is part of the nature of all that is. Those who propose panpsychism argue that consciousness is part of matter’s intrinsic nature; it is not an added extra.

If all matter has its own level of consciousness, it means that the way in which we view the universe, and its very creation, has to alter. Goff argues that science has been amazingly successful in analysing how matter works, but cannot explore the intrinsic nature of matter. If consciousness resides in the very heart of reality, which some scientists are beginning grudgingly to accept, it opens up a creative field for theologians to develop a new philosophical basis for theology.

I was interested that Goff says it will take many years for philosophy to flesh out a recognisable system incorporating panpsychism (and hopefully a better term for it). Perhaps those who are working in the field of theology could work with them and offer us a new vision of the work and purpose of God based on a philosophy of consciousness.

9 thoughts on “A Theology of Consciousness”

  1. ‘I AM’ is the thought which springs to my mind.

    If the original and ultimate Consciousness is the energy driving creation, then on a very simple level of thought all creation must spring from that source and have something of that source within itself. ‘The Being that lets all other beings be.’ (Who was it who said that, or something like it? I read it many years ago and thought ‘YESSS!’)

    ‘Panpsychism’ is a new one to me, but John Taylor, when he was our minister before he was moved to Queen’s – and Wesley’s chair – once unwrapped the difference between pantheism and panentheism in a sermon. (I was listening!)

    I shall spend the rest of the day thinking about this one – thank you, John.
    (Both Johns, actually!) We need some mind-stretching theology to help us to go on growing while the human world is at a standstill.


  2. Wow, that’s amazing! This weekend I watched a YouTube video about a Catholic Priest showing a very respectful but curious Protestant Christian around his Cathedral, and giving him a brief explanation of Catholic beliefs. The link is below if you’d like to watch it. You might have to copy it into your browser.
    The Priest explains how, during the Eucharist, everything becomes one, the building, the architecture, the people, the bread and wine, the body and blood, the past, present and future. It is all one, animate and inanimate. All is God. God is all.
    And then this morning I read this. Thank you, John. Thank you, Lord. Hallelujah!!!


  3. Thank you, John. A very stimulating and evocative piece. I have come across the twinned electrons before but not the term ‘panpsychism’. Consciousness, in the Christian tradition, is linked with sin (Genesis 3). Indeed it seems that disobedience to God brings about self-consciousness in that story. Whilst it makes sense that consciousness brings awareness of choices and thereby of right and wrong, the direct connection of sin and consciousness needs careful thinking about, not least in the light of Goff’s notion of all matter as conscious.


  4. Is it ok to ask a question? I have been thinking about Roger’s comment above; please forgive my ignorance but weren’t Adam and Eve conscious (of God, of each other and of the serpent) before they gave in to temptation and separated themselves from God? I thought guilt and shame were the consequence of their sin.
    Isn’t it possible to be conscious and without sin?


  5. I found the ideas about consciousness fascinating and have wondered if I could expand on them theologically. My first thought was that consciousness is not something we possess like belly buttons or big toes but a relationship. We are always conscious OF things. Turning to personal relationships I wondered if it was the case that we first have consciousness and then have a conscience about how we relate to others, or is it the other way round. That having a conscience about how we relate to others actually creates our consciousness. That took a bit of working out but I went for the latter and then wondered how that actually works. The answer I came up with is that having a conscience is responding to God’s Law which is written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31: 33, Romans 2:15 etc.) and that brings in theology because then consciousness implies something of the divine.
    Sorry if that is a bit complicated but these things are hard to express and contentious. I found a much shorter pithy way of saying the same thing from Levinas: God ONLY comes to mind in the context of the ethical concern we have for others.


  6. Science seems unable to recognise ‘consciousness’ in inamate things and (in some cases) animate things that aren’t human. Is it this failing in science that leads to the abuse of creation?


  7. Roger Walton questions the Christian tradition that disobedience to God, sin, brings about self-consciousness. I agree this needs careful thinking about and suggest that this idea is bad theology and here’s why:
    As you will know in Genesis there are two creation stories. The first version from 1:1 to 2:3 is assumed to have been written in the sixth century, during the Babylonian exile, perhaps to encourage and bring hope to the Israelites. Skipping out on all the details the important verse for me is 1:31 – “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”. God in this story is written as Elohim or El. He stands beside mankind and later walks with man in the Garden. He comes over as loving and forgiving, a friend who loves us unconditionally. The Abba father that Jesus spoke of. The Israelites of Abraham’s time probably adopted El or Elohim rather than Jahweh. If they hadn’t their name would have been Israyahu rather than Israel.
    The second version is about Jahweh. It may have been written earlier, perhaps in the time of David to agriculturists who were warlike and engaged in ethnic cleansing of the original people who still inhabited their “promised” land. Jahweh is the tribal God of the Hebrews. He relates to humanity in terms of power – providential power. He comes over as angry, disappointed, judgmental and demanding obedience from his people – he certainly did not think that all was good! That raises the question as to why we have ended up with Jahweh! Could it be that Jahweh was more useful to priests and prophets in a theocracy who could then use judgment and sin as a means of maintaining power over people? It is theologically suspect since it assumes we have to earn the love of God: Grace, the supposed love of this God is actually conditional!
    It seems to me that to make God’s love conditional or in any way exclusive or judgmental is to belittle God, and to ignore the Elohim we meet in Genesis, the words of Amos, Isaiah, and Hosea, the words of Hymn 190, the words of Paul in Corinthians, the Gospel of James and the Jesus we meet in the Gospels.
    So I conclude that “consciousness brings awareness of choices and thereby of right and wrong” and our sense of self or self-consciousness has absolutely nothing to do with sin. It is in fact the Grace of God.

    The implications of this view are immense and leave me more questions than answers:
    1. Is consciousness invariably about relationships, our response to the ethical demand that God places upon us and in some sense our access to the Grace of God?
    2. Is it true that God ONLY comes to mind in the context of the ethical concern we have for others?
    3. The immune system appears to have the same properties as consciousness so is it an “other” that we have to be concerned about. Does God then come to mind? Is it in fact part of the Grace of God?
    4. We have to live in a world with dualities such as good/evil, light/dark etc. but shouldn’t we take inclusiveness to its obvious conclusion and be wary of using dualities like sinners/righteous, heaven/earth, religious/secular, saved/not saved, redeemed/not redeemed, heaven/earth, God’s chosen people and others?
    5. Perhaps the whole idea of being is the problem and we should think in terms of becoming. Should our response to God’s Law (written on our hearts) be to recognise that we are egocentric hedonists on a journey to become other-obsessed altruists?
    6. Should the church dump the concept of sin?
    7. Should the church be more concerned about awareness than praise?
    8. If God arises through human relationships then what do you mean by presence, as in “Be still for the presence of the Lord is moving in this place”? 9. What do holiness and piety actually mean?

    Got a bit carried away there!

    Ought to express my gratitude to Levinas, Rahner, Michael Purcell, John Caputo, Rowen Williams, Tallon and Derrida who helped me find a meaning when I thought it was lost.

    Thought I would finish with a poem I wrote before the internet was invented.

    The Web

    Meshed in the matrix, earthed in the web,
    Mothered in the soul-band that won’t let go.
    Soft red silk to gentle us home,
    Or thin fierce wire that cuts to the bone.

    Hurt by isolation, in tears of desperation,
    Accepting the network’s open weave.
    Seeking delight in a deeper seeing,
    The web defines our better being.

    Some leave the web for hopes of glory
    To privatise God’s mesh divine.
    But there the self finds life of error,
    Past regrets and future terror.

    Some claim the web to be their own
    Form sects to make elites.
    Meaner souls seek keener powers –
    A web that’s mine and yours, not ours.

    Lifelong partners, passing pals,
    Our love is the means of making meaning.
    Birth and death are but the ends
    The middle is the touch of friends.

    Tied to the world by this web that earths us
    Centred on God, who will never let go.
    Cling to it madly – mind, body and soul,
    For joined up people end up whole.


  8. Fascinating thoughts. They bring me back to all sorts of curious science from John Wheeler’s particpatory universe to trees passing messages and nutrients to one another. Thanks for posting John.

    Roger, Robert and CJ – as to sin and consciousness – I would be interested in the reasons to take that standpoint.

    The romantic “bone of my bone” dialogue certainly seems to suggest a consciousness of self and the fact that one could choose to eat from the tree suggests an awareness of “conscience” and evil as a moral choice too. The “knowing” that happens later after eating the fruit I have always taken in a more Hebrew and less Greek sense in that it is participatory knowing not merely intellectual awareness that evil is an option.

    This doesn’t mean the idea of becoming “conscious” being linked to sin is not present in the Christian tradition – the “noble savage” myth certainly held sway during certain centuries. Just that it doesn’t seem to hold scriptural weight and in an intellectual sense a Aristotelian ethic of resisting the “apetites” has been equally prevalent at times.

    I would also recommend looking for grace in YHWH – it is after all YHWH who “makes the first move” in coming to walk the earth and find the man and woman . It is YHWY who asks three fantastic philosophical questions: where are you, who told you that and what did you do? It is YHWH who clothes them through sacrifice and who gives the woman the promise that her offspring will crush the snake’s head. It is surely in this context of being given hope by YHWH that “the Adam” (earth being) gives the woman her name of “Eve” (life).


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