NDIAS Colloquium discusses the dimensions of consciousness

“The Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, inspired by the Catholic intellectual tradition, seeks to go further in its commitment to the unity of all knowledge in principle. Truth is to be sought wherever it is to be found,” wrote Brad S. Gregory, the Director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Advanced Study (NDIAS), in his letter describing NDIAS’s mission.

In accordance with this mission, NDIAS hosted a Templeton colloquium on March 14 and 15 entitled “Mind, Soul, World: Consciousness in Nature.” The colloquium was led by David Bentley Hart, a 2015-2016 Templeton Fellow at NDIAS.

The NDIAS encourages a forum for discussion on topics that ponder the Catholic intellectual tradition, with a special focus on three major topics: tradition, science, and modernity. All areas of interest are open to exploration, but especially those that connect many disciplines and address broader questions. The institute does not merely examine the world as it is, but considers what it ought to be. Scholars accordingly can step outside of their specific fields to raise questions that link other areas of study together, and in doing so, illuminate new ideas.

Hart’s colloquium was structured around the major themes in a book project he is contemplating. All the panels addressed the conception of consciousness, such as its origin, its relation to matter, the soul itself, and contributions from Eastern intellectual traditions.

There were also panelists from Notre Dame, such as Gerald McKenny and Cyril O’Regan, both Professors of Theology. Leading professors from other universities, such as Paul Griffiths from the Duke School of Divinity, as well as international scholars, including Janet Soskice, a professor from Cambridge, were also among the group.

In his introduction to the colloquium, Hart writes that “physicalist emergentist accounts of the origins of consciousness” fail to explain the true nature of consciousness, which he describes as the “entirety of mental life.” Addressing a rather complex subject, Hart’s colloquium attempted to expand upon the themes of his book and further pursue the questions raised.

Robert Gimello, Professor of Theology at Notre Dame, told the Rover that his “job is to speak to the relevance of Buddhism to the larger theme of mind’s relation to nature and to the transcendent.” In his panel, “Eastern Contributions to the Understanding of Consciousness,” Gimello sought to demonstrate the significance of Eastern conceptions of consciousness.

He further explained to the Rover that “the limitations of the mind, in its ordinary conscious functions and on its surface, function to impede enlightenment by generating ignorance, craving, and suffering” and yet in the mind there is “a natural orientation toward perfection that enables it to overcome its own limitations.”

When asked about the overall objective of the conference, John Betz, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Notre Dame, told the Rover, “The basic concern is to contest certain contemporary accounts of consciousness, which try to reduce consciousness to some form of naturalism or materialism.” In other words, the goal is to challenge the notion that the mind is simply matter.

Hart succinctly states in his introduction that “all consciousness, at least structurally, is a relation to God as end, or even that teleologically the mind is God, insofar as it strives not only toward, but necessarily to become, infinite consciousness of infinite being.”

In her talk “The Problems with the Materialist Reduction of Consciousness,” Soskice argued that the modern conception of consciousness—calling a human “a computer made of meat”—denies the Christian doctrine of God. By claiming that nature is completely intelligible on its own, reductionists free themselves of God. The whole idea of creatio ex nihilo is discarded, and God’s radical transcendence is meaningless. Soskice’s talk demonstrated the importance of tackling these contemporary questions and finding answers that coincide with revelation.

The NDIAS colloquium offered a forum for exploring these and similar questions on the complex aspects of the mind. The panelists in the colloquium strove to follow NDIAS’s mission to seek the truth and bridge multiple disciplines as they engaged with thinkers of the past and present, all to better grasp a fundamental aspect of man: consciousness.

Sarah Ortiz is a freshman studying PLS and living in Lewis Hall. During spring break, she enjoyed time with her family, slept, and broke a pitcher on her face. Contact her at sortiz2@nd.edu.