31 Oct 2008

Unpremeditated Theology

The Seeking Truth: Science, Mystery and Human Identity discussion series at St Paul's Cathedral finished this week with the appearance of some unexpectedly novel theology, and the non-appearance of Robert Winston.

Winston was promised on the St Paul's website right up the last minute (I checked. In fact: he's still listed there) but he didn't pitch. One the one hand I was disappointed, as he was the star turn, but on the other - as someone with an anthropological interest in religion - I was also gratified to see that St Paul's management, holy as they are, aren't above a bit of sleight of hand in their pre-event marketing: Winston had evidently cancelled sufficiently early for them to find a replacement speaker, and to print the programmes without his name. It was only, oddly enough, the promotional website that they hadn't quite get round to updating. In my seat stupidly early and realising the situation, I picked out the most self-important looking of all the ushers and challenged him on the matter. He said he wasn't able make any comment about that, Sir, although 'sorry' might not have choked him.

Amusingly, this weeks panel ("Is there a place for the soul on the human genome?") were under instructions not to mention Richard Dawkins  [do they read Green Ideas? In fact, Keith Ward nearly mentioned him once, but I think he got away with it] and I was forced to abandon my parlour game, and instead actually listened - with increasing surprise - as the religious panel members developed a purely secular definition of the soul: Keith Ward, Dennis Noble and John Polkinhorne concurred that the soul is a process or a pattern. A pattern that could, conceivably, be re-embodied into another physical body (Keith Ward considered that a God would be required for that bit but really that's just a practicality)

I wandered if they had signed up for cryonics, but I think I know the answer, for a couple of well-chosen bulls-eye questions from the audience revealed a panel shying away from the logical implications of their own theory.  When asked 'What happens to the soul in dementia?' it was perhaps their religious or ethical sensibilities that prevented them from confronting the obvious: the pattern is decaying, the process is breaking down - the soul is leaving.

And then when asked if a machine could have a soul: Dennis Noble replied with linguistic dexterity that if it did, why we would no longer call it a machine. True enough, but the answer surely demanded by the 'pattern or process' model of the soul is 'Yes'.

I had detected some back-pedalling. I wondered if the discussion, and indeed the evening, was going entirely in the direction that the St Paul's Institute had intended. Perhaps the soul of the unmentioned Dawkins, the pattern of his thinking - was in fact still with us.

Then it finished and we all went to Ping Pong where I ate eleven coriander dumplings


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