God and Consciousness

by Frances Young.

Some readers may have seen the article by David Stevenson in the Methodist Recorder for Friday April 14th reflecting on faith and reason: “Voicing a View – God is consciousness.” As it happens I was then, and still am, in the process of reading the magnum opus of Iain McGilchrist, The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World (London: Perspectiva Press, 2021). As it happens Volume II, chapter 25 is entitled “Matter and Consciousness”. To his take on that subject I will return, but you need to have some idea of where he is coming from first.

My initial acquaintance with McGilchrist’s work came about some time ago when I read The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2009). A neuroscientist and psychiatrist, he is also a philosopher. The breadth of his learning, the depth of his understanding of science – especially physics and biology, and his sensitivity to metaphysics and the ultimate questions addressed by religion, is altogether remarkable, even more so in this more recent massive two-volume work substantiating and developing further the argument offered in his earlier book. I still remember my excitement as his presentation of what is known about the left and right halves of the brain illuminated both the lack of functions and the surprising capacities of my brain-damaged son, Arthur. But more than that, it provided scientific grounding for my long-developing sense that the logocentric rationality of scientific materialism is profoundly limiting as a response to the reality we actually experience and seek to understand.

Prior to reading McGilchrist I had happened to come across the fact that brains have two halves, that language resides in the left-hemisphere, while the right-hemisphere is more intuitive, and I had felt distinctly uncomfortable with the mythologizing that associated the controlling logic of the left-brain with masculinity and the intuitive, empathetic imagination with feminity. What was clear to me was that unless the two halves worked together a person wah deeply handicapped. McGilchrist confirmed the latter.

His focus is on the kind of attention each half of the brain gives to the world. In chickens one eye (the one linked to the left-brain) focusses on individual grains to be pecked, while the other (right brain) keeps a weather-eye open for rivals and predators. This is paralleled in humans: the left-brain analyzes, differentiates, divides into parts, focusses on things, drills down (we might say), defines and literalizes, re-presents by telling (rather than experiencing directly), manipulates and seeks to control; whereas the right brain attends to presence and process, to the whole and to flow, to relationships – facial recognition, social and emotional understanding are right brain functions, which also enables perspective on life, the universe and everything. Summary and generalization along such lines is substantiated by reference to scientific literature, brain scans, case-studies of patients with brains damage by stroke or accident, and the different take on things evident among neurodiverse persons, those with autism or schizophrenia.

Now it is against that background that McGilchrist

  • rejects any idea that the computer analogy tells us much about how the brain works;
  • explores the classic philosophical conundrum of the relationship between brain (matter) and mind (consciousness);
  • treats Western culture, its logocentric rationality and its assumption that life is mechanistic, as a left-brain, limiting response to reality;
  • rejects scientific materialism as an inadequate account of the way things are;
  • and, despite rejecting the “engineer” God, refuses to accept the incompatibility of science and religion.

And there is so much more – on ethics, aesthetics, purpose – just read and see!

Apropos consciousness, then, he suggests that consciousness is not just in us, but in everything that exists; for plants perceive and respond, trees communicate through complex underground networks of fungi, and even single cells behave intelligently – so the consciousness of living beings is an expression of this primordial force, flowing with vital energy. He states that it is more rational and better in keeping with science to suppose that matter arose out of consciousness than consciousness out of matter; and he postulates that “the grounding consciousness is intrinsically creative and that part of its self-realisation is the realisation of the cosmos” – indeed “it will naturally produce conscious beings.” The universe tends towards order, complexity and beauty, and it is implausible that it all evolved at random.

His final chapter is on “The sense of the sacred”:  here he affirms that the ground of Being, or God, is properly understood as transcendent, not just immanent. Maybe that sets a question against the straight identification of God with consciousness? Discuss.

2 thoughts on “God and Consciousness”

  1. Agree we can look at the world objectively, categorising and analysing, but where do we have a place from which we can stand outside ourselves to do this? And are we not using our left-brain consciousness when we try to define the difference between left and right-brain consciousness? What would our right-brain consciousness make of it? For me consciousness is not a property, something we have like our liver, toenails etc., but a description of our awareness of all that is other than self. For me it seems more appropriate to think of consciousness as being consciousness OF something. Here is poem I wrote about this:-

    The Hen

    Hen steps carefully over grass,
    glinting in morning sun.
    Pecks at nothing with one eye , misses, then moves on.
    There is sincerity here
    and wonder
    and beauty
    and meaning.
    Listen, Hen speaks to us,
    She tells us that life is good, very good!

    The difference between the objectively, categorising and analysing approach and the phenomenological, deconstructive approach is that the former is basically inward-looking and the latter outward-looking. I suggest that to construct categories within which we place all that is other than self is ethically neutral, whereas the phenomenological, deconstructive approach represents an engagement with life and generally an awareness that sees the wonder and beauty in all things. This implies an ethical spirituality where we see God, goodness, in all things. And the love of God with which we love, move and have our being is absolutely unconditional and never dependent on being categorised as saved or religious or pious. So, to deconstruct categories that divide us from each other is to recognise our basic humanity and also the oneness of nature and this leads to an ethical concern for all people and all things. God comes to mind in the context of our ethical concern for each other.
    Need a thesis to explain this adequately as I suggest Simon Critchley does in “The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas”.


  2. The early Christians saw themselves as followers of the Way, as exponents of “the truth as it is IN Jesus.” Such a faith is experienced and its truth lived out. The way it is explained is the outer layer which we should expect to renew and expand over time to allow the core faith to develop. Once Christianity became a state religion, those in power sought to codify it in order to control it. Orthodox beliefs and loyalty became central. Faith came to be seen as accepting the truth ABOUT Jesus, as taught by the church. In modern times our culture has valued rational reasoning more highly than intuitive thought. This has led to church leaders wanting to treat religious experiences objectively and to justify Christianity intellectually. It has led to some confusing of the different kinds of truth. You cannot prove what are matters of faith and personal experience.

    We can never grasp the essence of a religion through intellectual investigation alone. We need to understand it also as a way of life, a vision, a relationship and a commitment through intuitive brain processes. We have to be more open about different types of thinking, and acknowledge our use of poetic language and images. We can leave factual details about the physical universe and its development to science. Religious truth is about meaning, hope, and fullness of life. It demands a response in the way we live.

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