Over 9 weeks, we’ll be exploring science’s greatest mystery—human consciousness.
Humanity is set apart from the rest of creation by our mind’s ability for introspection, private thought, exercising our will, and self-awareness. The study of consciousness has been controversial, and scientists, philosophers, and theologians have invested countless hours attempting to unravel the mystery around how consciousness works and where it resides.
Will these human capacities ever be explained by purely naturalistic means, or does this uniqueness point toward a Creator who made us in his image and designed the universe for us to study and comprehend?
Join the conversation and hear from a range of speakers as they share their ideas and thoughts on a topic at the cutting edge of science and Christian belief.
Thursday 13th Apr 2023 @ 6:30 pm –
Thursday 8th Jun 2023 @ 7:30 pm
The ISCAST–NZCIS Conversations are back for 2023! Join us for 9 weekly online conversations from the 13th of April to the 8th of June. In this series, we’ll be deep-diving into the world of consciousness, knowledge, and the self. What does the human capacity for self-awareness mean for Christianity, and how might Christians think about these topics?
We’re offering our first Conversation with Dr Joanna Leidenhag for free! Simply join our mailing list for the link.
- Thursday nights from 13 April until 8 June
- Starts 6:30 p.m. AEST or 8:30 p.m. NZST
- Presentation: 30 minutes
- Discussion & Questions: 30 minutes +
This one-off fee will cover the cost of attending all the conversations. Not sure if you want to commit? Attend the first Conversation for free! Just sign up to our mailing list for the link.
- $30 for ISCAST and NZCIS members
- $60 for non-members
- $10 for student/concession non-members
- FREE for student/concession members of ISCAST or NZCIS
About the ISCAST–NZCIS Conversations
Since 2020, ISCAST and New Zealand Christians in Science have run the Conversations series, with an aim to promote a dialogue between the sciences and the Christian faith. Experts are invited to speak on their topic, which is then followed by a Q&A and discussion.
“The result of the Conversations for me is that theology and science together now truly inform my worship—no doubts, no niggles, no uncertainty.”
“New subjects and old ones, presented brilliantly.”
ISCAST’s aim is to generate a constructive conversation and, while ISCAST and NZCIS are committed to orthodox Christian faith and mainstream science, the Conversations speakers may come from a range of positions and do not represent either ISCAST or NZCIS.
Speakers & Topics
Minding Creation: What Are the Limits of Consciousness?
Joanna Leidenhag is a lecturer in Theology and Liberal Arts at the University of Leeds, teaching broadly in the sphere of Christian theology, philosophy of religion and intellectual history. With qualifications in Systematic Theology, Theological Studies, and Modern History and Theology, she is passionate about how philosophical concepts, scientific revolution, and Christian theology are woven together to inform society and personal beliefs.
Through her PhD and subsequent books Minding Creation: Theological Panpsychism and the Doctrine of Creation and Creation and Ecology, Dr Leidenhag explored the concept of panpsychism and its relation to Christian orthodoxy, arguing that it is of benefit to the doctrine of creation.
Dr Leidenhag is currently undergoing research exploring what people with neurodiversity, particularly autism, can teach the church about what it is to be human, a child of God and members of the Body of Christ.
In this Conversation we explore the theme of consciousness with Joanna Leidenhag. She will first examine the role that debates about consciousness play in science-and-religion dialogue. Second, she will argue for why both scientists and Christian theologians should adopt panpsychism, the view that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe and not unique to humans.
The Whole and the Person: The Destiny of the Self in the Infinite Universe
One of modernity’s forebears, Blaise Pascal, gave voice to a terror that still haunts us, regarding the human self condemned to pointlessness in the infinite universe. He cried out loud: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me!” For centuries, indeed, the self appeared to be inexorably lost in the cosmos—to paraphrase Walker Percy—managing to gain a bit of self-esteem by abusing nature (i.e., the environment) in the name of erecting a civilisation. But this was not a real way out of the self’s predicament. Not even the joy of finding out more things about nature and the universe could be the desired solution. Closer to our time, fortunately, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminded us that Christianity is an excellent framework for reconciling the self and the cosmos, or the whole and personal consciousness. In this talk, I undertake to map the parameters of the issue, one that still determines the self to seek refuge in excesses of all sorts, as well as a possible solution, in Teilhard’s footsteps, for the terrors the self experiences at the sight of modern cosmology’s bewildering expanses.
“What Is It like to Be a Bat?” An Introduction to Zombies and Thought Experiments in Consciousness
Chris Mulherin is the Executive Director of ISCAST and also teaches introductory philosophy at the University of Divinity. Apart from his own mind, which he claims to understand moderately well, he is not an expert in philosophy of mind. However, that might be a good thing, as he leads us in this discussion at a non-philosophical level. Chris is an ordained Anglican, once taught engineering, and lived for 13 years in Argentina with his family. His PhD relates scientific knowledge to other sorts of knowledge, including theology.
Following two in-depth and theological ISCAST-NZCIS Conversations, this week’s session is a little lighter. It is an introduction to thought experiments that philosophers have used to explore the nature and limits of consciousness. From a Christian viewpoint, humans are distinct from other animals and, presumably, from any present or future machines. So, Christians might hope for ways of understanding this distinction. As ChatGPT, the publicly available artificial language processor, takes the world by storm, Chris Mulherin (who is definitely not an expert in this field) will introduce us to “the hard problem of consciousness,” bat brains, zombies, Mary’s room, the Turing test, and other hypothetical scenarios designed to show that there are limits to machine “thinking.”
Can a Computer Be Conscious?
Neil Dodgson is Professor of Computer Graphics and, since 2019, Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Research at Victoria University of Wellington. He has oversight of the 1500 research students across all the University’s disciplines. He has an undergraduate degree in mathematics, physics, and computer science from Massey University, New Zealand. He spent 27 years in Cambridge, England, first as a PhD student, then as a member of academic staff, eventually becoming Deputy Head of the Department of Computer Science and Technology in 2010. He was a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge from 1995 to 2016.
Artificial intelligence has developed to the point where it exhibits behaviours that we might attribute to something that is conscious. But we have not yet developed a computer that is self-aware and almost no computer scientist would ascribe consciousness to the artefacts that we currently have, no matter how clever they appear.
How, then, would we determine whether a computer is conscious? To answer this, it is instructive to think about how we do the same thing for human beings. Why do we ascribe consciousness to a baby, when it can do so little? When does it start having consciousness? How do we think about people in a persistent vegetative state? Do we think that animals are conscious in the same way as humans? If so, where do we draw the line between conscious animals (a cat?) and non-conscious animals (a cockroach?)?
These considerations lead us to questions about machine consciousness, which I will explore in my talk, referencing both research and some of the great masters of science fiction who have thought deeply about these matters. Does a consciousness need a growth period in which to develop? Can we imagine a conscious mind that comes into existence with no development phase? Does a consciousness need to be embedded in a community? Whose values would it learn? And finally, what would the theological implications be of a machine that was truly conscious?
Is Consciousness a Platypus?
Antonios Kaldas has served as parish priest of Archangel Michael and St Bishoy Coptic Orthodox Church in Mount Druitt, Sydney, Australia, since 1991. He was previously a medical doctor, and has been heavily involved in the spiritual education of children and youth. He is an active researcher in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, lectures in Apologetics and Philosophy at St. Cyril‘s Coptic Orthodox Theological College in Sydney, and has recently authored Two Become One: An Orthodox Guide to Engagement and Marriage (2017), Ancient Faith Publishing. He is married with two children and a number of pets.
One of the ways we understand what something “is” is by fitting it into a bigger framework of other things that “are,” and trace out its relationships with them. When Europeans first came across the platypus, many did not believe it really exists. It does. But it does not fit into any existing category of living creatures. It has mammalian characteristics, but lays eggs and has a beak. It has reptilian/avian characteristics, but it’s warm-blooded. Eventually a whole new category had to be invented just for it (and the echidnas): ‘monotremes.’ When people discuss what consciousness is, they try to fit it into current categories of “things that exist.” But perhaps consciousness is the ‘platypus’ of the cosmos? Maybe we need to think bigger.
Understanding what consciousness is is very relevant to understanding what a human soul or spirit is, and everything that follows from that in Christian belief. In this talk I survey the various metaphysical slots into which people have tried to fit consciousness and assess how well they fit. I also try out a new approach to consciousness on the unsuspecting audience and hope to refine it with your feedback.
Three Types of Consciousness in Rudolf Steiner’s Spiritual Scientific Philosophy
Martin Samson was born in Southern Africa and grew up during the transition that led to the end of Apartheid. He has worked in Apartheid-driven Ghettos, lived in a monastery, and worked with socially and mentally disabled people. His life has been a quest for knowing how the world works, and how the spiritual and physical work in union with each other. He has a Masters in Theological Studies and has spent many years studying cross-cultural religion, philosophy, mythology, and cosmology. He recently submitted his PhD on creating a language and grammar between the Christological ideas of Rudolf Steiner, traditional systematic Christological doctrine, and Gnostic traditions.
Rudolf Steiner presents consciousness as becoming aware of what one is experiencing. There is a rhythm between perception, processing perceptions internally, and committing them to memory, which in turn directs our engagement with the world. It sounds simple enough, but what of levels of consciousness where it is not so easy to be conscious of our experiences? What we experience in prayer, meditation, contemplation, and religious ritual could be understood as having no connection with scientific investigation. For Rudolf Steiner, as we broaden our scope of consciousness and explore new horizons of scientific knowledge, our relationship to Christ becomes more important. In the Pauline sense of “not I but Christ in me” (Gal 2:20) our relationship with Christ provides both a reason and a capacity for perception in these realms. This talk will offer a brief insight into the re-emerging doctrine of the spiritual senses and its relevance for scientific method and orthodox Christianity.
What Is Wellbeing? Personality and Social Influences on Conceptualisations of Wellbeing
Peggy Kern is a researcher at The University of Melbourne, and an Associate Professor in Wellbeing Science. Her research examines who thrives in life and why, including understanding and measuring healthy functioning, identifying individual and social factors impacting life trajectories, and systems informed approaches to wellbeing.
From a subjective perspective, numerous models and frameworks of wellbeing exist. Such models are important for determining how to measure wellbeing, what interventions support wellbeing, and what improvements in wellbeing can be expected from any given intervention. But personality, sociocultural factors, spirituality and religious perspectives, and personal experiences across the lifespan impact upon how wellbeing is defined and experienced. This talk will explore strategies for capturing idiographic experiences of and pathways towards wellbeing, identify different conceptions of wellbeing that arise from these methods, explore intersections with Biblical perspectives on wellbeing, and consider implications for everyday life.
The Brain and Consciousness
Grant Gillett is Professor of Biomedical Ethics in the Bioethics Centre at the University of Otago, whose research ranges quite widely in bioethics, philosophy, and neuroscience. Grant’s work in neuroethics arose from research in Philosophy of psychiatry focusing on the nature of mental disorder, psychopathy, and dissociative disorders. Grant examined these topics through Post-structuralist philosophy, an exploration of the patient’s voice, post-colonialism, and human subjectivity.
The neurodynamic mind is an embodied reality arising through our incarnate being. That mind is the seat of thinking and consciousness and it has distinguished humans from their animal brothers and sisters. Descartes’ dualism emerged to deal with 1st person experience (I think therefore I am) and free will/Existentialism (I am/I act). Thinking, action and perception seemed to transcend mechanism until the rise of AI. Thinking is conveyed to others through language and engages us with the world. Language also enables counterfactual and future-directed talk by the use of imagination and creativity so we can plan and execute a series of actions and anticipations of perception based in our embodied lives (where we play sport and create art). These abilities bring an infinite set of potential cognitions in their wake fuelled by our own creativity and interests which may be egocentric or inclusive and loving. Consciousness therefore is a consequence of ‘con-scio’ (knowing in company) and allows cognition (based on gnosis) which means, among other things ordering by a kind of directed knowing.
The Moral Dimension of Consciousness: Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688) at the Dawn of Modern Philosophy of Mind
Modern philosophy tends to approach consciousness as a basic and morally-neutral feature of our mental lives: a phenomenon to be investigated with scientific objectivity, like cell division or gravity. But the first English philosopher to use the word “consciousness” in the modern sense, the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688), saw consciousness rather differently.
For Cudworth, consciousness was a decidedly moral property: to be conscious is to be virtuous, and all moral failures can ultimately be understood as failures to be properly conscious. This is because for Cudworth, consciousness is first and foremost a property of God: the divine mind, perfect in self-knowledge and self-awareness, is the archetype which all human consciousness is modelled after.
In this way, Cudworth provides a distinctively Christian and theistic philosophy of mind, where consciousness is not a morally-neutral property of mental life, but a mode of participation in the divine nature. While this “theological” view of consciousness would certainly be an awkward fit in most contemporary discussions of cognitive science or philosophy of mind, Cudworth’s pioneering work nonetheless provides a historically important, creative and compelling example of a Christian treatment of the mystery of consciousness.