Notes from Oxford: The Soul Conference

07.28.2013 | Morgan Davis

“To attain any assured knowledge about the soul
is one of the most difficult things in the world.”
(Aristotle, De anima 1.1.10)

What is the soul? Does it exist? If so, how should it be defined? Can it exist apart from the body? What do various religious and sectarian traditions have to say about it? Can philosophy or science bring us any closer to understanding it?

These ancient questions and many others like them were under examination once again from June 28 through July 1, 2013, at St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford. Over 100 specialists from a variety of disciplines convened a conference entitled, simply, “The Soul.” Philosophers and theologians of many stripes were joined by neurologists, sociologists, anthropologists, bioethicists, poets, and novelists to consider the mystery of the soul and the related topic of personhood. What is it that makes us alive and self-aware? What is it that imparts to us our sense of autonomy and free will? How do memory and intuition work? Is the mind more than the body it inhabits—more than the sum of its parts? Does the soul preexist the body? Does it continue after death?

The Latter-day Saint tradition, of course, is not silent on matters of the soul—eight LDS scholars presented papers at the conference. (Other scholars had papers accepted, but for various reasons, they were unable to attend.) Like the conference itself, LDS participants represented a wide variety of approaches and disciplinary training, as is obvious from a list of presentation titles:

Jacob Baker (PhD candidate, Claremont Graduate University), “Illuminating the Non-Lumnious: Pictures and Stories of the Soul in Wittgenstein and Ricoeur”

Morgan Davis (Research Fellow, Neal A. Maxwell Institute), “Origin and Return: An Islamic Account of the Premortal Soul with Some Notes on Mormon Resonances”

Brad Kramer (PhD candidate, Michigan University), “‘The Least of These’: The Stranger, the Subject, and the Distributed Soul in Christian Post-Resurrection Narratives”

Adam S. Miller (Professor of Philosophy, Collin College and a member of the Mormon studies advisory board at the Maxwell Institute), “Overwritten, Written Elsewhere: The Soul, Bruno Latour, and St. John’s Apocalypse”

Brent L. Top (Dean of Religious Education, BYU), “‘The First Principles of Man are Self-Existent with God’: The Immortality of the Human Soul in Mormon Theology”

Justin White (PhD candidate, University of California, Riverside), “The World of Faith and a Plurality of Worlds”

Richard Williams (Director of the Wheatley Institution, BYU), “The Freedom of Souls vs. the Freedom of Egos: Implications for a Freedom Worth Having and Being Worth Being”

Mark Alan Wright (Professor of Ancient Scripture, BYU), “Vitalizing Energies: The Multiple Souls of Maya Individuals”

In addition to academic representation, BYU was also represented financially as the university cosponsored the conference together with the University of Nottingham and the Centre of Theology and Philosophy. In particular, BYU’s London Centre (James Faulconer, director), the Richard L. Evans Chair for Religious Understanding, and the office of BYU’s International Vice President, Sandra Rogers, all contributed to make this international conference possible.

Several of the presentations I attended were deeply thought provoking, even inspiring. In a subsequent post or two, I’ll highlight a few of the ideas presented at this singular gathering.