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Engaging with Pullman, Part Four: Dust and the Signals of Transcendence

One of the things I find most intriguing about Philip Pullman is that, despite the negativity towards God and the Church expressed in “His Dark Materials”, he remains a surprisingly spiritual person.

For example in the book of essays, “Daemon Voices”, Pullman relates a significant event in his life as he walked down Charring Cross Road in 1969.  Suddenly he became conscious of connections between everyone and everything around him:

“I thought it was a true picture of what the universe was like: a place not of isolated units of indifference, empty of meaning, but a place where everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes… What I think now is that my consciousness was temporarily altered (certainly not by drugs, but maybe by poetry) so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of visible light, or routine everyday perception.” 

This transcendent experience resulted in his conviction that the universe is “alive, conscious and full of purpose”.  He reflected later: “Everything I’ve written, even the shortest and simplest things, has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement”.  Apologist Os Guinness would label Pullman’s experience an encounter with the “signals of transcendence” (in “Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion”) – an experience that signposts that there is must be something more to reality.  Guinness suggests that in order to engage with secular people who appear to be apathetic and disinterested in spiritual things that we need to “trigger the signals” and encourage people to pursue them to their conclusion.  Because as the theologian N.T. Wright has said, these signals of transcendence are really the “echoes of a voice” – the voice of Jesus inviting us into His new creation.

To help us think more about using the signals of transcendence generally and engaging with Pullman’s fascination with consciousness specifically – meet catholic philosopher Charles Taylor.  In his mammoth work “A Secular Age,” he argues people in a secular society find themselves “cross-pressured” between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand there’s the “malaise of immanence” – the sense that if this material here/now world is all there is, then life suffers from “flatness”.  The secular world is drained of colour, without any ultimate value, meaning, or hope – especially at significant moments like birth, marriage and death – there is a sense of something missing.  On the other hand there’s a sense of being haunted by “the ghosts of transcendence” and a longing for “fullness”.  Experiences like consciousness and reason, experiences of beauty, or longings for justice and love – signpost there has to be something more!

Take another example.  The 20th century poet W.H. Auden encountered a signal of transcendence in a New York cinema that set him off on a journey towards the Christian faith.  As a progressive socialist he had great confidence in humanity’s ability to better itself without religion and also a practising homosexual he had a bias towards moral relativism.  However, when he watched a news reel that depicted the brutal Nazi invasion of Poland and as he heard the applause of the audience watching atrocities against civilians – deep within him, he experienced a moral revulsion and conviction that this was absolutely wrong.  This set Auden off on a journey to discover a Moral Absolute, which did not fit within his former atheist humanistic worldview.

In the same way, Philip Pullman’s experience and realisation of the significance of human consciousness set him off on a journey to try to make sense of it.  That’s why consciousness has a starring role in both trilogies (“His Dark Materials” and “The Book of Dust”) and is connected with the phenomenon of Dust.  What is Dust?  Just as in the real world, the Higgs Boson particle is connected with a field associated with mass; in Pullman’s fictional world, Dust particles are connected with the Rusakov field which is associated with consciousness.  The Magisterium seeks to control and suppress these scientific discoveries, considering them to be heretical, because Dust proves that matter and spirit are one – that matter is conscious.  Furthermore, since Dust only is attracted to humans after adolescence, the Magisterium considers Dust to be the manifestation of original sin (which in Pullman’s world is about becoming self-conscious, free-thinking, free-willing, and sexually-awakened).  The abduction and ‘intercission’ of children (cutting away their daemon) in the first series is justified on the grounds of saving them from sin and keeping them in submission to The Authority.

Although Pullman has not yet come to Christian faith, he has recognised consciousness presents significant problems for the naturalistic and materialistic worldview adopted by most secular humanists.  In fact, it is no coincidence that the main antagonists in his most recent book (“The Secret Commonwealth”) are two philosophers who suggest that daemons are not real – that is that consciousness is just an illusion (as suggested by atheistic materialists like Daniel Dennett).

The challenge for pure materialism is that human consciousness/mind is reduced to being physical and electrical processes within the brain.  Such a worldview poses a threat to science and reason itself, since if our brains are purely the products of time, chance and unguided natural selection, they are wired for survival not necessarily for truth.  That’s what C.S. Lewis once famously argued: “If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.”  So why should we trust our brains at all?

Pullman seeks to avoid this problem by resisting reductionism to material causes.  In an interview (intriguing titled “The Religious Atheist”) Pullman says: “I like to say I’m a complete materialist but matter is conscious. How do I know that? Because I’m matter and I’m conscious”.  Pullman goes on to reject the crude reductionism that says: ‘“The world is nothing but the action of molecules” or “Love is merely the movement of electrons in the brains.” Sentences of that sort are nearly always mistaken,’ … I would prefer they were put in the form of “Love is a movement of electrons in the brain, among other things”.’  So Pullman is a secularist whose worldview has windows – he remains open to the existence of spiritual (non-material) realities like consciousness and moral responsibility.

Consciousness does not fit well within a purely materialistic and naturalistic worldview – it suggests there must be something more to reality.   Put another way by Lewis (in his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed”), Pullman should follow his experience of transcendence back to its source – to not just “look at” the sunbeam of consciousness but to “look along” the experience of mind to discover the Mind of God.

However, sadly, Pullman has not yet left behind the secular worldview to discover that the Christian worldview makes better sense of consciousness.  Nevertheless, there is still a glimmer of hope!  In a recent public discussion in Blackwells with philosopher Philip Goff, Pullman expressed deep appreciation and agreement with his latest popular work: “Galileo’s Error: Foundations For A New Science of Consciousness”.  Therein Goff explains the concept of panpsychism – that all matter experiences a basic level of consciousness (although only humans with their developed brains experience higher levels of consciousness).  Although Goff remains within an atheistic worldview he attends church regularly in Durham and argues compellingly that consciousness will never be explained by science.  He defines Galileo’s Error as restricting science to quantitative study using mathematics, all while removing from science the study of qualitative realities like consciousness, morality, spirituality and beauty.  Although you cannot reduce the redness of red or the sweetness of sugar to an equation, they are just as real as the force of gravity.  Although an MRI scan can reveal what regions of the brain are activated by such experiences, it is a worldview statement (not scientific) to say that Mind emerges from Matter or is an illusion.  It is refreshing to see such reductionistic thinking being challenged, even if it doesn’t go all the way.

Dr Sharon Dirckx was also in recent conversation with Philip Goff (on the Unbelievable programme) about her recent book “Am I Just My Brain?” – she has also spoken and written for Solas so check it out!  She offers compelling argues that our intelligent minds and the intelligibility of the universe are signposts to Intelligent Mind of our Creator.  The Bible explains that consciousness is not brute fact of nature but a defining feature of the gift of the image of God in humanity – given so that we might enjoy being God’s friends and wisely ruling over His creation.  Consciousness is a “signal” or “ghost” of transcendence!  We would do well to learn more about how to use these things in our gospel conversations with people!


David Nixon is a pastor in Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife and children.

This article is the fourth in a series, the previous articles are;

Part One: Why I’ll be watching ‘His Dark Materials’ and so should you.

Part Two: Philip Pullman and the power of stories.

Part Three: Pullman on God and The Church