From Consciousness to the Soul: A Philosopher’s Journey in Neurotheology

A Lecture by Dr. Elie During

The trend of contemporary research labeled as “neurotheology” has a strange flavor for philosophers trained on a Cartesian diet. It offers an unusual blend of cutting-edge science and traditional spirituality, of experimentalism, hard-won facts and lofty philosophical speculations. Drawing from quantum physics and brain science, behavior therapy and mysticism, “neurotheologians” probe issues of ordinary psychology (the mechanisms of consciousness and attention) as well as metaphysical ones (the ultimate nature of “matter,” the meaning of death, the possibility of survival). In order to make their point, they have Buddhist monks step on stage along with neural networks. The issues at stake are of momentous importance: they challenge the way we think of ourselves as selves.

If such inquiries on the fringes of brain and mind can get fairly technical, they remain universal in scope, and the scientists involved in them are eager to make their findings accessible to the general public. Books and articles on the subject have flourished over the past decade. Skeptical views have been voiced, along with enthusiastic endorsements of the new paradigm. The purpose of this lecture is to map out some of the difficulties and surprises that await those-laymen and philosophers alike-who embark on this adventurous journey while trying to form their own judgment.

In order to orient ourselves in a maze of perplexing and vital questions, it is useful to first survey some of the basic concepts and problems at stake, with a view to their practical implications and a sense of historical depth. For reflection on the roots of consciousness started long before the wonders of contemporary neuroscience. Some insights can still be gained from philosophers such as William James or Henri Bergson, who have risked themselves at charting the elusive domains of mind and consciousness at a time when brain science was still in its infancy, and metaphysics was considered by most as a branch of science-fiction.

Two questions loom at the horizon of this modest introduction to the philosophical underpinnings of “neurotheology.” First, in what sense is the notorious “Mind-Body Problem” transformed by the work of neurophilosophers? Is it finally overcome, or merely displaced, played in a new key? Second, how does it affect the way we conceive of the spiritual realm, or more generally of the possibility of rational spiritual discourse? This last question may well prove the most delicate, given the predominantly materialistic framework inherited from modern science.

Elie During is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris 10, Nanterre. He studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (Paris) and Princeton University before working for the French Cultural Service in New York (1998-1999). His current research focuses on the notion of spacetime at the juncture of metaphysics, science and aesthetics. His seminar class at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris (School of Fine Arts) is devoted to related issues. His publications include two volumes of selected philosophical readings (L’Âme [The Soul], Flammarion, 1997; La Métaphysique [Metaphysics], Flammarion, 1998) and an introduction to Poincaré’s philosophy of science (La Science et l’hypothèse: Poincaré, Ellipses, 2001). He has also contributed to edited books on French philosophy (French Theory in America, Routledge, 2001), film studies (The Matrix in Theory, Rodopi, 2006) and philosophy of physics (Handbook of Whiteheadian Process Thought, Ontos Verlag, 2008). His critical edition of Bergson’s essay on the theory of relativity is under press (Durée et Simultanéité, Presses Universitaires de France).

Location: French Institute Alliance Française, Tinker Auditorium
55 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022