Bats, theistic personalism and Frankenstein

Let me present three apparently disparate themes and then show that, together, they give some useful theological insights.
batIf you have any interest at all in the question of consciousness, and haven’t read Thomas Nagel’s essay What it is like to be a bat, then your education in the matter is lacking.

Nagel’s central thesis is that consciousness is irreducibly subjective. There is “something that it is like” to be a bat (or anything else you might consider sentient), but it is completely impossible to apprehend without actually being that bat. Not only can a human not imagine it, but even if we were to contrive to do so, or somehow to gain access to a bat’s neurological system, we would still only be a human observing batness. Science therefore cannot explain consciousness, because you can’t be objective about the purely subjective, by definition.

Such considerations explain why Nagel no longer considers materialism philosophically tenable, but it’s sufficient to for us to note that we can never ever truly understand any consciousness beyond our own. The best we can do (and it is a pretty striking best) is to make the jump to realising other people are enough “like us” for communication and moral accountability. And we are able to extend that realisation. though increasingly inaccurately, to animals, to angelic beings, or to God.

Tom the Dancing Bug
Theistic personalism is that modern strand of theology that rejects the old formulations of God’s being and essence in favour of making him more “personal” – or, more specifically, a member of that species called “persons”, though hugely wiser, more loving and so on. Here I’m considering it particularly in the context of that significant number who integrate it with the doctrine of creation, especially in its more extreme forms such as Open Theism.

In this, the sentient being’s “freedom to be other” takes priority, particularly in God’s delegation of nature, or evolution (it’s never quite clear what entity is meant, nor how it is an entity) as co-creator, largely independent of God. Its outcomes then, are organisms and systems that may either please, or perplex, God – or in Open Theism itself, which denies God’s knowledge of the future, literally surprise him.

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, chemist Victor Frankenstein is the “modern Prometheus” who, discovering ways of restoring dead flesh to life, makes an ersatz human. Frankenstein comes to hate his work, because he really doesn’t understand his creation. Maybe for both reasons, it has no name – Victor calls it many things from “monster” to “fiend”. But the strength of the story is the psychology of the creature itself – actually intelligent and sensitive, but alone in the world and both misunderstood and despised by its creator – yet in the final scene bitterly mourning his death.

Amongst other things, Shelley’s genius lies in the recognition of our fundamental need to be understood for who we are. That is why the monster pleads with Frankenstein for a mate – a direct allusion to the creation-role of Eve in Genesis. But Victor, again from fear of Promethean (or Pandoran) consequences, destroys her before she is completed.

It’s my belief that theistic personalism finds its root in the spread of Arminianism through popular Protestantism. But Jacobus Arminius himself was a classical theist. And he said this of God as Creator:

This creation is the foundation of that right by which God can require religion from man, which is a matter that will be more certainly and fully understood, when we come more specially to treat on the primeval creation of man; for he who is not the creator of all things, and who, therefore, has not all things under his command, cannot be believed, neither can any sure hope and confidence be placed in him, nor can he alone be feared. Yet all these are acts which belong to religion.

Frankenstein’s creature lived in the truth of the first part of this statement, but for him it was tragic, because of the ignorance and creatureliness of his maker. The semi-Deist (or “statistical Deist” in R J Russell’s parlance) who treats evolution as a demiurge is actually worse off, for he owes what he is more to blind, impersonal forces in nature, which cannot be rationally worshipped, than to the distant God who let them loose. I guess that, implict in Mary Shelley’s tale, is the idea that the monster cannot find ultimate comfort in God because whilst the latter might have enabled him to be, it was Frankenstein who caused him to be what he was.

But it wasn’t just the fallibility of his creator that was the creature’s grief – it was the impossibility of Frankenstein’s truly understanding what he had made. He was not God – he merely used what he found in God’s universe and only dimly comprehended. And this tragedy is equally the case in theistic personalism, especially when tied into an automous evolution.

Remember Nagel’s bat: it cannot know me and I cannot know it, because such knowledge is entirely subjective. If God is a divine person, and I am a biologically-contingent kind of person, then it makes no difference if God set off the evolutionary process that led to the possibility of sufficient commonality for communication. He still cannot know me as I know myself – and he certainly can’t know me better than I know myself, which is what I need if I am to gain what is lacking within myself. Presumably such a God – higher up the scale of intelligence than I, and incorporeal, has even less conception of “batness” than I do. Pity the God-forsaken bat.

The personalist God might have more intelligence than any human, but intelligence can no more lead to knowledge of the subjective experience of being me than science can. What’s good for bats is good (or bad) for God. In Open Theism, for example, God knows the future only by a higher order of the same reading of the past and present that we have. If he designs proteins, it is by trial-and-error or thought experiment. He deduces Abraham’s faith literally only from observing the fact of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. But whatever your powers of deduction, you cannot work out a subjective experience. Such a God cannot know me, even in principle.

But one can, alternatively, abandon personalism and re-embrace classical theism. In traditional Christian belief, although creation is genuinely separate from God, every part of it arises from some facet of his infinite being. His knowledge is never acquired from outside, but arises from what we might reverently mis-call his “subjective” internal experience, his self-knowledge.

He knows what it is like to be a bat because the bat, including its subjective batness, comes from within God. And he knows what it is like to be me, because my humanness – and my Jonness – are also from within God’s being: and that is so because, whether via intermediaries like evolutionary processes or not, I am directly created by him. I am the result of his determining will, which dwells with his depthless wisdom and his unfathomable knowledge. “In him we live and move and have our being.”

Such a truth is the reason both for the deepest faith and worship and for atheism, dependant on receiving the grace to prefer being known by the One who knows all than to live eternally in autonomy. As for me, I guess I sense I have more in common with Mary Shelley’s misshapen monster than with her thoroughly autonomous Prometheus.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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6 Responses to Bats, theistic personalism and Frankenstein

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    An interesting article on a similar subject is given by Max Velman’s, who reviewed Humphrey’s Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness (that argues for Darwinian evolution). The review is scholarly and identifies the considerable problems faced by Darwinians. I think a couple of quotes convey the central problems identified by Velman (in Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 18, No.11-12 (2011), pp. 243-254). I find these discussions amusing, because evolutionist now either directly, or indirectly, turn to ‘magical’ explanations to sustain their odd outlook – the article is well worth reading if those interested could access it:

    (1) “But the nub of the problem is this: Darwinian evolutionary theory is a functional theory. Stripped down to its essence, it has only one explanatory mechanism: novel biological forms and functions emerge through random variation of genes, and only persist if in some way they enhance the ability of organisms (or populations of organisms) to propagate their genes. Given this, for evolutionary theory to explain the existence of consciousness, it must show (a) how consciousness emerged through random variation in the genome of organisms in which it was previously absent, and (b) how that emergence enhanced the ability of those organisms to propagate their genes”.

    (2) “There is also a fundamental philosophical problem: information processing accounts of one has done before: to explain how phenomenal consciousness could be an evolved consciousness must be fully discoverable from a third-person perspective. In spite of its seeming inaccessibility to external scrutiny, the presence of conscious qualia should be observable from the outside, mental functioning, like evolutionary accounts, are third-person accounts which require no appeal to first-person experiences for completeness. …….Third-person, cognitive models of how human minds process novel or complex stimuli (in speaking, reading, problem solving and other so-called conscious tasks) require only information processing of a kind that could be programmed into a computer. … And the same applies to brains: once one has adequately explained their functioning in terms of information processing or in terms of the neurophysiology that embodies it, there is nothing left, in third-person functional terms, for first-person experiences to do – a problem recognised at the dawn of cognitive psychology ……. A few of us (including myself) argued that consciousness was simply too important to human life to dismiss as an epiphenomenon, and that rather than try to squeeze it into an information processing box too small to contain it, or a purely functional explanation of human behaviour into which it did not fit,..”

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Yes GD

      The problem of consciousness is a huge one for materialism – what I haven’t come across before (until I thought of it) is that it also seems to be a problem for certain non-traditional versions of theism. Or that Frankenstein spoke to the issue!

      • Avatar photo GD says:


        I may not be fully versed with open-theism (or other non-traditional versions of theism), but it seems to me that all of these versions speak as if they see ‘how God has done it’ and may be differing versions of naturalism. I have come across some interesting treatment(s) of Darwinian thinking as the ‘other side of creationism’ in that they both seek some way for nature to make sense to them.

        On Frankenstein, I take some additional ‘insights’, namely the way the creature and its creator interact (for want of a better term), and how we can view human beings as made up of a lot of ‘bits and pieces put together’. This is contra the understanding that we are persons, and more than a bunch of organic molecules held in a container of water.

        On knowing what a bat is like, we can extend this to every creature, but most of all, to ourselves – by this I mean we may know ourselves as ‘this person I’, but we can just as easily insist (and believe) that we are a bunch of bits and pieces put together by a random process. What it is to be human, what!

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          I was thinking about your second point driving cross-country in the car today (after listening to an excellent radio play on C S Lewis and Tolkein with a strong spiritual component – unusual for the BBC). Mary Shelley didn’t, if I remember rightly, major on the ontological difference between a human as organism as opposed to a machine made of disparate parts, which was of course the nature of her literary creature.

          That Aristotelian difference may have been lost on her, but is certainly lost on most of us moderns, though a Thomist like Ed Feser will use it (with some justification) to criticise the machine analogies used in ID.

          It’s an important distinction, but I arrived home without really having worked out what it means for our understanding of the organism in science, if one declines to think of it as a collection of molecular machines.

          Plenty to discuss (or put in a column) in that, because it is an important bridge between theology and the concept of evolutionary change.

  2. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    When I was roughly 10 years old, I remember thinking that I had no idea how those strange creatures called grownups thought, and perceived. I was aware (and still am) that the adult consciousness and childhood consciousness are different in kind, and that as a child I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to be a grown up. But I knew that that would change as I grew, and eventually I would find out. I then had a horrible and very clear thought. What if, once I grew up, I forgot what it was like to be a child? I tried very hard to find some way for me to remember what childhood consciousness was, and now that I am really quite grown up indeed, I can report that this attempt was pretty much a failure. I had my own children, and I could recognize childhood consciousness in them (as we all can) but that total understanding, knowledge, feeling of what its like to actually BE a child, no, that vanished.

    Of course, there is also teenager consciousness, and that is a whole nother topic.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      That’s tangential to my post, but very interesting in its implications – since it’s hard to disagree on the substance.

      I remember my childhood very well, but not the cosncious experience of being a child. So, perhaps, it will be when we are transformed into the likeness of Christ. Our life here will be part of our remembered experience, but will not in the least dicate what we will be.

      What a fascinating thought.

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