Dec. 21, 2012 Countdown - Day 27: John Eccles on Science & Religion

Nobel Laureate John Eccles on Science & Religion (compiled by Tihomir Dimitrov)


1. In his article “Modern Biology and the Turn to Belief in God” that he wrote for the book, The Intellectuals Speak Out About God: A Handbook for the Christian Student in a Secular Society (1984), John Eccles came to the following conclusion:

“Science and religion are very much alike. Both are imaginative and creative aspects of the human mind. The appearance of a conflict is a result of ignorance.

We come to exist through a divine act. That divine guidance is a theme throughout our life; at our death the brain goes, but that divine guidance and love continues. Each of us is a unique, conscious being, a divine creation. It is the religious view. It is the only view consistent with all the evidence.” (Eccles 1984, 50).

2. In an interview published in the scientific anthology, The Voice of Genius (1995), Prof. Eccles stated:

“There is a fundamental mystery in my personal existence, transcending the biological account of the development of my body and my brain. That belief, of course, is in keeping with the religious concept of the soul and with its special creation by God.” (Eccles, as cited in Brian 1995, 371).

3. “I am constrained to attribute the uniqueness of the Self or Soul to a supernatural spiritual creation. To give the explanation in theological terms: each Soul is a new Divine creation which is implanted into the growing foetus at some time between conception and birth.” (Eccles 1991, 237).

4. In The Human Mystery, Eccles writes: “I believe that there is a Divine Providence operating over and above the materialist happenings of biological evolution.” (Eccles 1979, 235).

5. “If I consider reality as I experience it, the primary experience I have is of my own existence as a unique self-conscious being which I believe is God-created.” (Eccles, as cited in Margenau and Varghese 1997, 161).

6. Eccles described the so-called ‘promissory materialism’ thus:

“There has been a regrettable tendency of many scientists to claim that science is so powerful and all pervasive that in the not too distant future it will provide an explanation in principle for all phenomena in the world of nature, including man, even of human consciousness in all its manifestations. In our recent book (The Self and Its Brain, Popper and Eccles, 1977) Popper has labelled this claim as promissory materialism, which is extravagant and unfulfillable.

Yet on account of the high regard for science, it has great persuasive power with the intelligent laity because it is advocated unthinkingly by the great mass of scientists who have not critically evaluated the dangers of this false and arrogant claim.” (Eccles 1979, p. I).

7. With respect to ‘promissory materialism’, in his book How the Self Controls Its Brain (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1994), Eccles wrote:

“I regard this theory as being without foundation. The more we discover scientifically about the brain the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena and the more wonderful do the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a superstition held by dogmatic materialists. It has all the features of a Messianic prophecy, with the promise of a future freed of all problems - a kind of Nirvana for our unfortunate successors.” (Eccles 1994).

8. In his book Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self (London: Routledge, 1991), Eccles wrote:

“I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition.

We have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.” (Eccles 1991, 241).

9. “Since materialist solutions fail to account for our experienced uniqueness, I am constrained to attribute the uniqueness of the self or soul to a supernatural spiritual creation.

This conclusion is of inestimable theological significance. It strongly reinforces our belief in the human soul and in its miraculous origin in a divine creation.” (Eccles 1994, 168).

10. “As a dualist I believe in the reality of the world of mind or spirit as well as in the reality of the material world. Furthermore I am a finalist in the sense of believing that there is some Design in the processes of biological evolution that has eventually led to us self-conscious beings with our unique individuality; and we are able to contemplate and we can attempt to understand the grandeur and wonder of nature.” (Eccles 1979, 9).

Eccles’ teacher, the Nobelist in neurophysiology Sir Charles Sherrington, too, is a dualist; Sherrington maintains that our nonmaterial mind is fundamentally different from our physical body. Sherrington believes in an almighty Deity and Natural Religion. (See Charles Sherrington, Man on His Nature. The Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology, Cambridge University Press, 1975, 59 and 293). There are many other Nobel scientists, who have explored thoroughly the mind-body problem, and who are staunch dualists: George Wald, Nevill Mott, M. Planck, E. Schroedinger, Brian D. Josephson, Santiago Ramon y Cajal, Roger Sperry, Albert Szent-Gyoergyi, Walter R. Hess, Henri Bergson, Alexis Carrel, etc. (See Margenau and Varghese 1997, ‘Cosmos, Bios, Theos’; see also Popper and Eccles 1977, The Self and Its Brain).

See the chapters on George Wald, Nevill Mott, M. Planck, and E. Schroedinger in this book.

11. In his article “Scientists in Search of the Soul” (Science Digest, 1982), the science writer John Gliedman pointed out:

“Eccles strongly defends the ancient religious belief that human beings consist of a mysterious compound of physical body and intangible spirit. Each of us embodies a nonmaterial thinking and perceiving self that ‘entered’ our physical brain sometime during embryological development or very early childhood, says the man who helped lay the cornerstones of modern neurophysiology. This ‘ghost in the machine’ is responsible for everything that makes us distinctly human: conscious self-awareness, free will, personal identity, creativity and even emotions such as love, fear, and hate. Our nonmaterial self controls its “liaison brain” the way a driver steers a car or a programmer directs a computer. Man’s ghostly spiritual presence, says Eccles, exerts just the whisper of a physical influence on the computerlike brain, enough to encourage some neurons to fire and others to remain silent. Boldly advancing what for most scientists is the greatest heresy of all, Eccles also asserts that our nonmaterial self survives the death of the physical brain.” (Gliedman 1982, 77).

12. “We can regard the death of the body and brain as dissolution of our dualist existence. Hopefully, the liberated soul will find another future of even deeper meaning and more entrancing experiences, perhaps in some renewed embodied existence in accord with traditional Christian teaching.” (Eccles 1991, 242).

13. “I do believe that we are the product of the creativity of what we call God. I hope that this life will lead to some future existence where my self or soul will have another existence, with another brain, or computer if you like. I don’t know how I got this one, it’s a pretty good one, and I’m grateful for it, but I do know as a realist that it will disappear.

But I think my conscious self or soul will come through.” (Eccles, as cited in Gilling and Brightwell, The Human Brain, 1982, 180).

14. In his book The Human Mystery, Sir John Eccles said: “The amazing success of the theory of evolution has protected it from significant critical evaluation in recent times. However it fails in a most important respect. It cannot account for the existence of each one of us as unique, self-conscious beings.” (Eccles 1979, 96).

15. Sir John Eccles maintains that the will of the human beings is free, and that’s why he denies the so-called physical determinism: “If physical determinism is true, then that is the end of all discussion or argument; everything is finished. There is no philosophy. All human persons are caught up in this inexorable web of circumstances and cannot break out of it. Everything that we think we are doing is an illusion.” (See Popper and Eccles, 1977, 546).

16. “With self-conscious purpose a person has a great challenge in choosing what life to live.

One can choose to live dedicated to the highest values, truth, love, and beauty, with gratitude for the divine gift of life with its wonderful opportunities of participating in human culture. One can do this in accord with opportunities. For example, one of the highest achievements is to create a human family living in a loving relationship. I was brought up religiously under such wonderful conditions, for which I can be eternally grateful. There are great opportunities in a life dedicated to education or science or art or to the care of the sick. Always one should try to be in a loving relationship with one’s associates. We are all fellow beings mysteriously living on this wonderful spaceship planet Earth that we should cherish devotedly, but not worship.” (Eccles, as cited in Templeton 1994, 131).

17. In his letter to Erika Erdmann (December 19, 1990), Eccles said:

“You refer to protection of our Earth as the most urgent goal at present. I disagree. It is to save mankind from materialist degradation. It comes in the media, in the consumer society, in overriding quest for power and money, in the degradation of our values (that used to be thought as based on love, truth, and beauty), and in the disintegration of the human family.” (Eccles 1990).

18. “I repudiate philosophies and political systems which recognize human beings as mere things with a material existence of value only as cogs in the great bureaucratic machine of the state, which thus becomes a slave state. The terrible and cynical slaveries depicted in Orwell’s ‘1984’ are engulfing more and more of our planet.

Is there yet time to rebuild a philosophy and a religion that can give us a renewed faith in this great spiritual adventure, which for each of us is a human life lived in freedom and dignity?” (Eccles 1979, 237).