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The Table Video

Stephen Post

Christian Love for the Deeply Forgetful - Dementia, Eternal Soul, and Image of God

Professor of Family, Population, and Preventive Medicine, Stony Brook University
June 2, 2017

Agape (aka “Unlimited Love”) is not “bestowed,” but is rather is a “recognition” of the image of God in every human being regardless of condition. I will develop the theological idea of our being temples of God’s spirit, and offer a set of classical Christian ideas about the eternal soul as the basis of dignity and worth. I will argue that no form of materialism (even so-called “nonreductive physicalism”) can sustain a robust concept or practice of agape love because no matter how nuanced, the idea that the eternal human soul is entirely derived from cells, tissue, and brain matter makes the human being nothing more than what the atheist Bertrand Russell referred to as complex “pond scum” devoid of an eternal dimension. I will offer a counterpoint not just to what Sorokin called sensate materialism, but to the “hypercognitive values” that also compromise the moral status of the “the deeply forgetful” and other such constituencies. I will refer to my experiences with the Nobel Laureate Sir John Eccles, and with Templeton Prize winner Jean Vanier, both of whom share the view that no matter what the cognitive condition, every individual is of eternal value and therefore worthy of love. Finally, this is a recognitional love that has its source not simply in the frail and meager human substrate of “compassion” or in the exclusionary arrogance of ”reason alone,” but in the spiritual experience of Divine Love and visionary grace.


Hi, welcome back from all your group sessions and from lunch. Christian love and deeply forgetful people. I wanna approach this round and about with some general thinking about the nature of love and then the nature of Christian love, the nature of what it is to be in the image of God in relationship to Christian love. I wanna talk a bit about people who are cognitively incapacitated and, in this particular focus, the deeply forgetful because that’s been something of a passion in my life since a long while ago when my grandmother died of what was probably Alzheimer’s disease, but that was before anybody used the A word.

But the silver lining of that was that I spent some time with her, quite a lot of time with her, and got interested in continuity of self identity and the way that hints of continuity could inspire caregivers so you’re not dealing with a husk or a shell or someone who’s dead or gone and so forth but is really underneath the chaos there’s more there than meets the eye.

So I write and I think as a Christian inclusivist, to use a ecumenical theological term that I borrow from Paul Tillich or Carl Reiner use basically the same typology. I’m not an exclusivist. I’m not just interested in things Christian, but I am Christian. I’m not on the other hand a pluralist, anything goes, vive la difference. I’m an inclusivist. So where I see things consistent with the best Christian values and non-Christian traditions and spiritualities, I can get interested in those things, okay? Just to be clear. The meaning of love.

Thank you, Tom, for your extraordinary presentation. But everybody presented wonderful concepts of love. Lynn and George, everybody did. I mention the one that I prefer when the happiness and security of another is as real or meaningful to you as your own, and maybe more so, you love that person. And it pretty much covers the spectrum that could be filia. It could be storge, it could be all the kinds of contexts that C. S. Lewis and so many others referred to. It just works. And it works for everyday folks across all traditions. And that’s why I gravitate toward it.

I’ve also been very interested over the years in the modulations or expressions of love. This is Norman Rockwell’s picture from The Saturday Evening Post, 1961. You’ve got people from every imaginable tradition, including a secular existentialist rubbing his chin, possibly having read Sartre’s “The Look” and wondering because you glanced at him with kindness if you’re after his wallet. [audience chuckling] 20th-century cynicism there. But you see, it’s a beautiful image and you’ve got people from all ages. You’ve got men and women and every ethnicity. It’s a beautiful, beautiful image. Rockwell painted that in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

One of my holy grounds in the United States. I go up there for Jonathan Edwards, Reinhold Niebuhr, Rockwell and of course, Arlo Guthrie and Alice’s Restaurant. [audience chuckling] There’s actually a plaque in an alley next to a sign that says, “Theresa’s Cafe, formerly Alice’s Restaurant.” And it’s a plaque to Officer Obie. But you think about these individuals and hopefully they’re contemplating, they’re focusing their minds on the positive version of the golden rule, not the negative version. Do not do unto others. Doesn’t take a lot to live according to the negative version. It just means that I wanna get out of here tonight on the red eye without having elbowed Tom Ord in the ribs. Then I can put my feet up on that plane and say, “I’m good,” [chuckles] right? But this requires more idealism, more vision, more, as they say, moral imagination.

And you look at all these people and there’s a kind of a serenity about them, a kind of tranquility. And we know actually, scientifically from a number of studies, that when people simply dwell on helping others, it’s interesting if you look at the brain studies, it doesn’t happen when you just dwell on the suffering of others but when you do well on actually coming to their assistance, when you envision that, a part of the brain lights up. It’s the mesolimbic pathway, the deeply emotional part of the brain that’s associated with feelings of exhilaration and doles out at least one of the four big happiness chemicals, dopamine.

So to some extent, we’re wired in this directional lotus that’s so easily overridden by negative hierarchies, by negative culture, by so many things that we would hardly want to enumerate them. But you look at all these people, and when I say modulations of love, well, I get up in the morning and I actually have a copy of this framed over the fireplace. I take a look at it and I think about the people I will encounter over the course of the day and I ask myself, well, what sort of expression of Christian love do they need? For some, it’s loyalty. Someone’s been betrayed.

They’ve been arbitrarily fired and they can’t trust the world anymore. For some, it’s compassion. They’ve been suffering a bit. But not everybody’s suffering. For some, it’s celebration. They are the benchmarks in people’s lives. You can look at the gospels and you’ll find Jesus exemplifying imperfection, all of these manifestations. Simple helping activities. Volunteering, for example. Forgiveness. Humor, a little mirth. We heard some of that with respect to Karl Barth. I’m pretty mirthful, and I consider that to be a blessing.

Some of the medieval theologians said that the closest virtue to caritas, love, was hilaritas. And it’s a gift if you can really reorient people in tasteful, creative ways through that gift. Carefrontation. That’s a term that I coined with M. Scott Peck who had graduated from the Case medical school years back and so we got to know each other. He graduated in psychiatry and I wasn’t there when he was there but we corresponded a lot. And we wanted a word that wasn’t confrontation because that was too adversarial. We wanted something that was a little different tone. So carefrontation. Sometimes people need that. You need to guide them and bring them forward and bring the best out of them as a true friend. Respect, looking twice, looking more deeply at the opinions of others. Attentive listening.

Remember Dame Cicely Saunders at that MIT conference, Lynn, in 1999 you referred to? We’d come over from St. Christopher’s Hospice in London, the first hospice. She invented the hospice movement and she said, “I’m 79, I still go into St. Christopher’s “every morning and I change bed pans for an hour, “just a mark of humility,” she said. And then, “I sit on the end of beds “and I listen to people who are dying, “because a lot of time,” she said, “when people are dying, “they’re second guessing their lives.” Did I marry the right person? You always marry the right person. [laughs] Actually, Hauerwas would disagree. [laughs]

But they’re wondering if they made the right decisions in life and they’re thinking, was my whole journey a cosmic mistake? And so she asks them, “What’s the most gratifying “and meaningful thing that you’ve done with your life?” and would just listen. And she said, “Listening is a form of love.” And she felt such a special calling to people who were dying. Creativity can be an expression of love certainly. Look at the parables of Jesus. That’s genius, inspired genius, 100% all the way. So those are modulations or manifestations of love. And I think it’s hard to talk about love without talking about humility.

You look at Spinoza or Aquinas or Aristotle, humility really has to do with an accurate sense of self and its place in an equal regarding community, right? It’s not humiliation. It’s not self-abnegation but it’s about an accurate sense of self, vis-a-vis God and neighbor. And so that means that you’re leaving space in the room for the neighbor. I think humility also, at least in AA context, means that we acknowledge a spirituality of imperfection.

Sorry for you perfectionists, you Nazareans. [sighs heavily] But you have to accept people, at least first, as they are, you know, something Fred Rogers used to say over and over again, that you have to accept people as they are because after all, 24/7, that’s how God has to interact with them for the most part. But I don’t wanna talk about love in a purely secular sense.

My definition stays the same. But love can be spiritualized. It can have a mystical quality. I do not think, and here I would agree with everybody who’s spoken, that this kind of elevated love has its origins in the hellish mixed bag of mere human nature. I’m living a long [mumbles] right now. [laughs] It’s interesting. Some of my colleagues did a paper on how widows and widowers get through grief and bereavement quicker and in a more enduring way if they can report helping activities in the neighborhood. So I got invited to a talk at a society in Queens of widows and widowers, and I gave this. I thought it went pretty good. We had Q&A at the end.

There was a guy in the back of the room and he waved his hand and said, “I don’t care what you say, buddy. “I don’t do nothing for nothing.” And I knew I wasn’t in Cleveland no more. [audience laughing] But we need something higher and sublime, and we need to be clear about that. So this drives me to the metaphysics of love and to being in the image of God. And then I’m gonna go to the deeply forgetful. So by the way, just on this picture, when I was a kid I went to a high school in New Hampshire. It actually used to be Christian. I don’t know what it is now, St Paul’s Home of the Senior Salute, I guess. And I heard Rockwell, he came up from Stockbridge and he gave a beautiful presentation on his work and he talked about this.

And at the end, he pointed to the halo. He said, “Do you see the halo?” How many of you see the halo? Look at the white. Chagall did this a lot too, right? See the white halo, the white circle in the middle? The white robes here, white beard, right? It’s all a white halo. And what he said was that he was someone who spent a lot of time with Eric Erickson and with Reinhold Niebuhr, who spent more time in Stockbridge than he did at Union by the way. And he said, “When you abide in this mindset “of doing unto others and operationalize it,” he viewed this as an activity as well as a state of intentionality, he said, “That’s where you can meet God.” So that halo is in there very purposefully. But I also had the opportunity, I was about 14 at the time, to hear a gentleman who died in 1969. He came to the chapel and he gave some lectures, and that was Pitirim Sorokin, the greatest Russian-born Russian orthodox social scientist who ever worked on the concept of spirituality and love.

And he wrote a great classic called, “The Ways and Power of Love.” And when we started the institute, Sir John actually asked us to put a new edition of that out, and we did that with the Templeton Press. I’m not gonna go into Sorokin and how profound he was, but he thought about love, and just think about this with me for a moment, he thought about it in terms of five dimensions. And there are Sorokin scales that Jeffrey Levin has developed at Baylor. He works with Byron Johnson’s group. So one is intensity.

You know, divine love anyway, which scores a perfect 10 on the scale always, is perfectly intense. I mean, God is always there, always available, always intensely available. Mere human love, it’s kind of flickering, if you will. For the most part. Extensivity. We were talking about that yesterday. So not just love for the nearest and dearest but love for all humanity and possibly love for the planet earth and love for the universe. Actually, Sorokin thought that a good example of wide extensivity is St. Francis of Assisi because he seemed to “love the whole universe and God.” Now that’s extensive. Sorokin’s next invention was duration.

So you know, an awful lot of human love is not very durable. It’s here today, it’s gone tomorrow and it’s gone forever. So he spoke a lot about that, wrote a lot about that. And then he talked about the purity of love. I think we’d all recognize that human love is, by nature, impure. That’s why sometimes, it so easily turns to violence, for example. We demonize outsiders.

We think about ingroup/outgroup differences that really is, Aconti would say, “Don’t amount to anything logically.” Darwin said the same thing. But unfortunately, we have that tendency toward impurity. We think selfishly, and that corrupts love in a lot of ways. And then he talked fifthly about the adequacy or the wisdom of love. So you can love your children. I like to say parental love is very hardwired until they start talking back. [audience laughing]

Just kidding, just kidding. But you know sometimes, you feel that way. Actually, I like Barth on parental love. That parental love is actually a lot more insecure than we think. That’s why Barth points out very firmly that all parental love is adoptive love, because ultimately we’re just here for the moment. The real love is coming from Christ and from Lord almighty. So we shouldn’t be proprietary. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as the absolute parents of our children. We’re just kind of caretakers, if you will.

But adequacy is important because it’s so easy to overindulge your kids or overindulge anybody. So you you teach them that the rest of the world doesn’t matter. You teach them against extensivity, right? You teach them that only this little myopic kernel of the world makes any difference at all, and that’s a terrible thing, especially in today’s world where, boy, we sure need to get to a sense of a shared or a common humanity. Sorokin liked the theocentric aspect of love. He was always reminiscent of Jim Gustafson to me. He spoke of figures like Jesus, Al-Hallaj, Damien the Leper, Gandhi. He said, “Despite being persecuted and hated “and therefore without any apparent social source “of love energy, they were nevertheless able to maintain “a love at high levels in all five dimensions.”

Not at the highest levels except for Jesus, but high levels. “Such love seemed to transcend ordinary human limits.” So he studied a lot of the spiritual and religious practices that helped people participate and, if you will, love energy from every possible part of the world and from every different kind of a belief system. He thought that, again, unlimited love, which was his way of talking about agape and a world where some people speak Greek, I do like Greek, there’s a lot of good Greek-speaking people but not typically, a lot of people don’t speak Greek so he preferred something that was more wide open.

Sir John did too, hence, “Unlimited Love.” But he really thought that most human beings in their day-to-day activities are somewhere down around a three or four at best. And he hypothesized the existence of an inflow of love from God. So I just wanna quote a little bit here to get a feel of how he wrote.

Again, he was a Christian inclusivist too, but he was sort of open minded about what he could learn from world traditions. “The most probable hypothesis “for these kinds of individuals is that an inflow of love “comes from an intangible, little-studied, “possibly supraempirical source called God, “the Godhead, the Soul of the Universe, “the Heavenly Father, and so on. “Our growing knowledge of intra-atomic “and cosmic ray energies,” this sounds like Fetzer [laughs] right? “Has shown that the physico-chemical systems “and energies are able to maintain themselves “and replenish their systems “for an indefinitely long time. “If this is true of these coarsest energies, “then the highest energy of love “is likely to have this self-replenishing property “to a still higher degree. “We know next to nothing about the properties “of love energy. “Theoretically, love may have its own fission forces “that make its reservoir inexhaustible. “When a person knows how to release these forces of love, “he can spend energy lavishly “without exhausting his reservoir.”

So he spoke about a super consciousness about a human connectivity with divine presence. And he took that very seriously. I was in the Union League in Philadelphia, Lincoln’s birthday in February, and I went down to the Civil War exhibition in the basement and I saw the great statue of Lincoln that was done by Daniel Chester French, who died in 1931.

French was also from, you got it, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. A great friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Christian, but also a Boston trancendentalist, which is to say that he was influenced somewhat by Hinduism. And he also did the Lincoln Memorial, which is called by art critics the Hindu Lincoln.

But Emerson and French were quite metaphysical, and here’s basically what they believe. This is kind of a quick presentation of Christian transcendentalism of that era. “There exists only one original, “eternal and universal Mind,” with the capital M, “beyond time and space, “of which each individual is given a small drop.” “The essence of that one Mind is pure love and creativity, “which is to say that our deepest individual essence “and calling is to be free extensions of creative love. “Mind precedes all matter, “which derives from Mind and is sustained by Mind “as an underlying matrix of ultimate reality. “We are all connected in Mind, “which explains our human spiritual inclinations, “mysticism, extraordinary creativity,” possibly Einstein’s Gedanke experiments, “premonitions, deep transforming experiences “and even a spiritual gift of loving “all people including enemies. “All worthy religions and spiritual philosophies “converge on one Mind and its essence of love, “albeit they all differ wonderfully “in their symbols and cultural expressions.”

And we certainly need to get to that point. I think the Sir John Templeton I knew for many years was very much inclined in this direction through the Unity School of Christianity, which was influential on him. And in fact, about three weeks before he died in June of 2008, from his deathbed he made an unusual request to his son, Jack. He said, Jack, there’s a book I’d like to write but I’m clearly not going to have an opportunity to do so. But I’d like you to ask Stephen to write it. And he said, here’s the title. Sometimes we really think God for a question mark, I’ll tell you. The title is, “Is Ultimate Reality Unlimited Love?” He was a Presbyterian, bible-believing guy, but he was also very much engaged in these various different traditions.

So I wrote this and boy, I’ll tell you now, working with Sir John was amazing. The back of it is all full of letters from Sir John. “I would be especially pleased if you would find ways “to devote a major part, “perhaps as much as 1/3 of the grant “that we have given you toward research evidence for love “over a million times larger than human love. “What could be more arrogant than to think “that humans are the definitive examples of love?” And it goes on and on and on. “Are humans created by love “rather than humans creating love?”

We actually mostly agree with that. “Are humans yet able to perceive only a small fraction “of agape love and thereby serve as agents “for the growth of,” and it goes on. But let me tell you, I enjoyed getting faxes from Sir John. But that’s how that unfolded, and I think Sir John really was sort of, I called him once an Edwardian Amersonian at his 100th birthday party after he died in Heidelberg, Germany. So I just want to take serious this idea that the underlying reality in the beginning was the word, that the mind is not derivative from matter but in the sense of the Big Bang precedes it and all the constants of the universe and the thermodynamic principles. All of that is a great tribute to the glory of God.

And I wanna talk about the image of God then go very quickly. Thomas Nagel wrote a very controversial book in 2013, “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian “Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False,” and he thinks that materialism is being, as he says, “brow beaten” into our consciousness. We think that we have a mindless universe. He takes a different view. He’s a Platonist basically. \

He says, “My view, one that makes mind central “rather than a side effect “of the physical world. “My guiding conviction is that mind is not just “an afterthought or an accident or an add-on “but a basic aspect of nature.” He talks about universal prime mind. Interesting concept. UPM, universal prime mind. He locates himself as follows, “The view that rational intelligibility “is at the root of the natural order makes me, “in a broad sense, an idealist, “not a subjective idealist “since it doesn’t amount to the claim “that all reality is ultimately appearance, “but an objective idealist in the tradition of Plato “and perhaps also a certain post-Kantians, “such as Schelling and Hegel, “who are usually called absolute idealists.”

Not too long ago, just two years ago, 100 notable scientists from biology, neuroscience, psychology, medicine, psychiatry, met and they created the manifesto for a post-materialist science. And their view is that scientific methodology is always sacred, non-touchable and never to be distorted. But the way in which we interpret facts with regard to metaphysics, whether we’re materialists or more on this side of idealism, that’s a whole different story.

Sam Parnia, who’s the world’s most famous researcher right now on consciousness and resuscitation, does great research, empirical research. Some people interpret as research. Materialistically, they think that mind is just a derivative of brain cells and chemistry and matter and so forth, and some people look at his work and they interpret it as pointing towards something that is eternal, something that is beyond matter and in fact, in the image of God.

So these kinds of ideas are important, and I will just give you one more comment from Sir John. Sir John wrote a book, “Agape Love: A Tradition Found in Eight World Religions.” He wrote that in 1999. It included a chapter on Hinduism. He says, “Hinduism speaks of the self, or soul, Atman. “It also speaks of Brahman as the ultimate “principle of the universe. “The fundamental religious conviction “that Brahman is Atman.”

The famous formula, Atman equals Brahman. “Or that the self is ultimately inseparable from the whole “is a firm foundation for agape in the Hindu context.” Of course, a lot of us here would say, “Well, not quite theologically.” But that’s how Sir John thought. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” I’m a strong believer that within each of us, there’s unimagined creativity and freedom and inner peace. I do think that we live in the image of God. I think that I’m in agreement here with the gospel of John, with St. Paul, with Christ, with T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and you can go on and on.

I was in Bangalore in December for a couple weeks at the Indian Institute for Advanced Studies doing two weeks of work on the deeply forgetful with neurologists and theological minds from all across India, including his holiness, who showed up the first day. The Dalai Lama. And it was a really deep conversation. Somebody said when the Hindus greet you on the street, they say namaste, right? That means, I honor the divine in you as you honor the divine in me, right?

So I do think that Christian love really has a lot to do with assessment, actually with assessment. It’s not just bestole but it’s really, ideally it’s our ability to see in every human being, without exception, the beauty and the wonder and the majesty of their being in the image of God. Some of you went with me to visit John Vanier. We took Stanley Hauerwas along, which is how we met him. That was eight years ago. No, actually 10 years go north of Paris. I tell you, John Vanier, he thinks like this. We had a beautiful day-long session and we went to a chapel service that evening that Stanley writes about in his book with John.

And there were members of L’Arche, people with cognitive disabilities, and then the assistants who were their volunteer helpers. There were probably 100 people in the room, and there was one particular fellow, Eric, who was very agitated and on a wheelchair. The assistant wheeled him up to the priest who gave him communion.

And I said, I made a mistake, I said to John Vanier that night at dinner, I said, “John, do you really think that Eric “got anything out of that because he was just so agitated. “He was so unable to comprehend that.” And John, who’s a very generous man, [chuckles] he looked at me sternly and he said, “His continence changed,” which is to say that somehow mysteriously, that man, Eric, was still in the image of God and he was still accessible to the love of God. And I believe that to be the case. Get back to it in just a minute and we’ll wind up.

The source of pure unlimited love, of agape love, whatever you wanna call it. I love W. H. Auden. He’s sort of my favorite person. “One fine night in June 1933, “I was sitting on a lawn after dinner “with three colleagues, two women and one man. “We liked each other well enough, “but we’re certainly not intimate friends, “nor had any of us a sexual interest in another. “Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. “We were talking casually about everyday matters when, “quite suddenly, unexpectedly, something happened. “I found myself invaded.”

What a metaphor. “I found myself invaded by a power which, “though I consented to it, was irresistible “and certainly not mine. “For the first time in my life I knew exactly “because, thanks to the power, I was doing it, “what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. “I was also certain, “though the conversation continued to be perfectly ordinary, “that my three colleagues were having the same experience. “In the case of one of them, “I was able later to confirm this. “My personal feelings toward them were unchanged. “They were still colleagues, not intimate friends, “but I felt their existence as themselves “to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.” That’s in “The Protestant Mystics.”

Incredible statement about the metaphysics of divine love, that we can be swept into it, and about the value of all human beings. So now I’m gonna just take us to the deeply forgetful. 30 years I’ve been consulting with families of the deeply forgetful and working clinically and in other ways, including scientifically, with this population.

And I still do it, and it’s my passion. One of my passions in life. And a lot of times, you know, I also do a certain amount of clinical pastoral care. People ask, “Well, is grandma still there?” Grandma is still there. And an awful lot of people around the world will say yes, that despite all of the chaos, underneath it all, they feel the presence of their loved one. And it’s, for them, not just attribution but it’s very real. Autobiographical memory, not as something that’s stored in the physiological computer, if you will, of the brain with all of its synapses but up there in cloud storage [chuckles] and is being accessed.

So there’s an eternity to it. And one person said to me not long ago, a Christian who was caring for his mother, “Stephen, it was St. Paul in Romans 8:39 who wrote that “absolutely nothing can separate us “from the love of God, and that includes “Alzheimer’s for sure.” And I agreed. Now the materialist may deem any idea of non-material memory substrate as nonsensical. But to many caregivers, probably 90% of the people on the face of the earth, all Hindus pretty much, we know grandma’s fully there underneath this chaos or silence and that there’s an eternal soul that is slowly returning to the arms of the supreme.

Okay, so let me just confess something. About 10 years ago, I came to Fuller Seminary and participated with Nancey Murphy and Newt Malony on that project, “Whatever Happened to the Soul?” and everybody was a non-reductive physicalist and we walked in the room, that was the assumption. I’m sort of getting away from that. Nobody really knows what biographical memory is. It remains a mystery. You can look at Penfield, you can look at Hebb’s, you can look at Karl Pribram. People talk about holographic memory.

Total chaos about what biographical memory is. Nobody really knows. Many people think that it’s impossible logically to consider infinite megabytes of information as deep as a boundless ocean or a limitless sky in a very finite three-pound entity. So there’s something more going on there. Avicenna, Agustin, in his famous discussion of memory in the “Confessions,” these people were waxing eloquent about the infinity of memory and imagination.

The great Hindu sages have asserted the same. Henri Bergson, “In Matter and Memory,” said, yeah, “There is a habitual memory “that we can attribute to the physiology of the brain, “but image remembrance, biographical memory, “that’s something else.” He searched that in that sense, memory is absolutely independent of matter. And I guess you have to believe that if you think there is an eternal soul.

Otherwise, you can be like a materialist, say Bertrand Russell, who finally did acknowledge that, “There’s nothing really different “between a human being and pond scum,” right? So National Academy of Sciences proceedings, the most premier journal in the country, two years ago, finally, a large group of experts on memory said that we see now a huge challenge to neural models of memory storage and retrieval because they have to account for too much storage capacity.

This is a long, long story, I won’t go into it. Roger Lewin, 1980, his article in science, “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?” Because children who had hydrocephalus and recovered had 3% to 4% percent of the total brain mass and they were functioning fine and had excellent memories, some of them much better than average. So suddenly, there’s a literature on this. Donald Forsdyke at Queen’s University in Canada, he thinks this evidence is quite impressive. So he says, “We’ve got some options: “the standard model by which long-term memory “is held in the brain in some chemical or physical form,” about two seconds to go here; “long-term memory is held in the brain “by some extremely minute subatomic form “as yet unknown to biochemists and physiologists, “but akin to computers, storing large amounts “of information in progressively smaller spaces.”

And then third, “Information relating to a long-term memory “is held outside the brain “since most non-neural tissues and organs “appear unsuited to the task. “This extrapolates to long-term memory “being outside the body, extra corporeal.” Amazingly, this startling alternative has been on the table for at least two decades. So I’m gonna wind up here and just say that when I look at a person who’s deeply forgetful, I always see them. I assess them. It is an evaluative love. I evaluate them as still being in the image of God.

When I see those little hints of continuing self-identity, I don’t just see it as a small fragment of a residual brain, but I see that as pointing me towards something deeper and more mysterious and more profound. So whether you’re going to be a non-reductive physicalist today or a dualist, I’m clearly veering in the latter direction in my old age, whatever you think, love is the answer, love is the question, love is the way, especially in these kinds of hard times, it’s about the power of love.

And it’s not about the power of cognition, it’s not about hypercognitive values and power because remember, anytime any philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr pointed this out vividly 50 years ago on his Interpretation of Christian Ethics. He said, “When we start defining persons “in terms of rational capacity,” right, “then we become arrogant.” He used that word arrogant. And he said very quickly, “The more rational people begin to discriminate “against those who are less rational.” And then we have life unworthy of life.

We have useless eaters. So is grandma still there? I always affirm caregivers who believe in the eternal soul of a loved one, and they may be correct. Their hopes have not been falsified, and I’ve seen many cases of terminal lucidity even in people with extensive late-stage Alzheimer’s. And even near-death experience may point to some eternal return to the light and warmth of divine love. Open mindedness follows wherever good science leads.

When I was in Bangalore, a very impressive American philosopher was there, Owen Flanagan, who is, I believe, at Virginia. And he was listening to all this, and he said one thing. He said, “You know, I honestly cannot tell you “that my consciousness, which is lucid “and intact rationally, is any more meaningful “or valuable in the great scheme of the universe “than the consciousness of a person with dementia.” So I’ll leave it at that, and I thank you for listening. [applause]

Continue the conversation with this piece from Andrew Tix.