Centre of Theology and Philosophy - Oxford 2013 - The Soul
Grandeur of Reason


The Soul

St Anne's College, University of Oxford
28 June - 1 July 2013


Ever since Descartes, the soul understood as immediate mental consciousness has tended to stand as a last bastion securing religious belief against naturalistic reduction. But today that bastion is under assault from the 'new atheists'. However, the bastion is proving very hard to storm, with increasing numbers of even atheist thinkers denying that its capture by neuroscience will ever prove possible. Meanwhile, more subtle naturalisms are arguing that the body and the environment as well as the brain are involved in thinking processes. Thus we are seeing the emergence of a tripartite debate between lingering dualism, outright denial of the reality of mind and various accounts of mind-body unity, sometimes embracing panpsychism. Within this third option there exists scope to revisit traditional, pre-Cartesian monothesitic accounts of the soul as the form of the body as well as the site of an immortal spark of reason. This debate is of crucial cultural significance, because, if the last bastion cannot be stormed, it will throw the intellectual coherence of naturalism into doubt and encourage a new intellectual boldness on the part of believers. Since most people assume, against naturalism, the reality of things like free will, intentionality and love, it might well be that religion, rather than scientism, will soon be generally perceived as more aligned with common sense. For if mind and soul are not readily derivable from below, must they not rather be derivable from above? The topic of this conference therefore could not be more crucial and timely.

Keynote Biographies

Conor Cunningham

Conor Cunningham is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham and Assistant Director of The Centre of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Genealogy of Nihilism (2002) and, most recently, Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong (2012). His recent research has focused on the philosophical and theological background to evolution. In 2009 Dr. Cunningham wrote and presented the BBC documentary Did Darwin Kill God? He spent the academic year 2012-13 at the Centre of Theological Inquiry at Princeton University engaged in a research project on evolution and human nature as part of a team of scientists, theologians and philosophers. Dr. Cunningham's next book will be on the soul and the imago dei.

William Desmond

William Desmond is an Irish philosopher who has written on ontology, metaphysics, ethics, and religion. Former president of the Hegel Society of America and the Metaphysical Society of America, Desmond is Professor of Philosophy at the Higher Institute of Philosophy at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, and also at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. In his celebrated trilogy Being and the Between, Ethics and the Between, and God and the Between, Professor Desmond offers an entirely new and complete philosophical system based on 'the potencies of being' and 'the senses of being'. His most recent work is The Intimate Strangeness of Being: Metaphysics after Dialectic (2012).

John de Gruchy

John W. de Gruchy is emeritus professor of Christian studies at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is the author of many books in the field of political theology. At this conference, he will launch his latest monograph, Led into Mystery: Faith Seeking Answers in Life and Death, which is a sequel to his 2006 work Being Human: Confessions of a Christian Humanist. This latest work was prompted by the untimely and tragic death of Professor de Gruchy's eldest son in February 2010, and the questions this posed about the meaning of life and death from the perspective of Christian faith. A further prompt came as a result of a multi-disciplinary research project on the humanist imperative in South Africa (2009-2010). This raised critical questions about being human from the perspective of science, especially neuroscience, as well as other faith and secular perspectives. All these inform the discussion which is an exploration of mystery on the boundaries of human knowledge and experience, engagement with the world and the evolution of consciousness from a specifically Christian theological perspective.

David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and cultural commentator. He has particular expertise in patristic theology and contemporary philosophy. Professor Hart was educated at the University of Maryland, Lancaster University, the University of Cambridge and the University of Virginia. He has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota), Duke Divinity School, and Loyola College in Maryland. He was most recently a visiting professor at Providence College, where he also previously held the Robert J. Randall Chair in Christian Culture.

Professor Hart is author of the acclaimed The Beauty of the Infinite: the Aesthetics of Christian Truth (2004). His Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies won the 2011 Michael Ramsey Prize (UK). Professor Hart is also author of The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? (2005), In the In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments (2009), and The Story of Christianity: A History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith (2009). His latest work, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, will be published by Yale University Press in September 2013.

Iain McGilchrist

Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, doctor, writer, and former Oxford literary scholar. He read English at New College, Oxford. He was awarded a Prize Fellowship of All Souls College, Oxford in 1975, teaching English literature and pursuing interests in philosophy and psychology between 1975 and 1982. Dr. McGilchrist then went on to train in medicine, and during this period All Souls re-elected him to a further Fellowship (1984-1991), and again in 2002 (to 2004). He was formerly a Consultant Psychiatrist of the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley NHS Trust in London, where he was Clinical Director of their southern sector Acute Mental Health Services. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Dr. McGilchrist trained at the Maudsley Hospital in London, working on specialist units including the Neuropsychiatry and Epilepsy Unit, the Children's Unit and the Forensic Unit, as well as, at Senior Registrar level, the National Psychosis Referral Unit and the National Eating Disorder Unit. During this period he also worked as a Research Fellow in neuroimaging at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, USA.

Dr. McGilchrist's first book, Against Criticism, was published by Faber in 1982, and deals with issues of the wholeness, uniqueness and embodied nature of the work of art, which are continuous with his current concern, the relationship between the history of ideas and shifts in brain hemisphere function, a topic which he has been researching for 20 years. This is the subject of a recent book published by Yale University Press, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Responses to this groundbreaking work can be read here.

Mary Midgley

At the conference, Graham Ward will interview the eminent English philosopher Mary Midgley. Dr. Midgley is the author of over fifteen books including Animals And Why They Matter (1983), Wickedness (1984), The Ethical Primate (1994), Evolution as a Religion (1985), Science as Salvation (1992), Science and Poetry (2001), The Myths we Live By (2004), and The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene (2010). She is regarded as one of the UK's most eminent and influential philosophers of recent decades.

John Milbank

John Milbank is Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics and Director of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham, having previously been Francis Myers Ball Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Virginia. He has also held posts at the Universities of Cambridge and Lancaster. Professor Milbank is the author of the highly acclaimed Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (1990/2005). His other works include The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language and Culture (1996), Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (2003), The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate Concerning the Supernatural (2005) and The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology (2009). Professor Milbank's published works also include a number of high profile debates with the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek. His next work, Beyond Secular Order, will be published in 2013. Professor Milbank's very wide-ranging interests include political theology and the relationship between philosophy and theology in every age.

Marilynne Robinson

Pulizer prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson was born and grew up in Sandpoint, Idaho, and did her undergraduate work at Pembroke College, the former women's college at Brown University, receiving her B.A., magna cum laude. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington.

Dr. Robinson has written three highly acclaimed novels: Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). Housekeeping was a finalist for the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (US), Gilead was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer, and Home received the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction (UK). Dr. Robinson is a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize.

Dr. Robinson is also the author of non-fiction works including Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989), The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010), and When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2012). She has written articles, essays and reviews for Harper's, The Paris Review and The New York Times Book Review.

Dr. Robinson has been writer-in-residence or visiting professor at many universities, including the University of Kent, Amherst, and the University of Massachusetts' MFA Programme for Poets & Writers. In 2009, she held a Dwight H. Terry Lectureship at Yale University and in April 2010 she was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She currently teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Graham Ward

Graham Ward is Regius Professor of Divnity in the University of Oxford and Canon of Christ Church Cathedral. He was previously Samuel Ferguson Professor of Philosophical Theology and Ethics and the Head of the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is the author of seven monographs, the most recent being The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens. Professor Ward's publications offer theological engagements with numerous fields of enquiry, notably critical theory, psychoanalysis and gender studies. He has written on the theology of language, postmodernism, cultural analysis and Christology. His contemporary research focuses on Christian social ethics, political theory and cultural hermeneutics.