"Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against skepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been and always will be 'on to God.'"

THERE IS a way going on, the internationally famed physicist Max Planck was right -- even though he may be deemed right by only one side.It is a way of literally cosmic proportions and is unlikely to be won or lost anytime in the next thousand years or so, if ever. Or it could happen tomorrow.

It finds its battlefields in the lecture halls of the world's great universities and in the pages of scientific journals in a hundred languages.

That it may never have more than a passing impact on most human lives does not make it the less zealously conducted, the less passionate, even the less acrimonious. And, indeed, should there be an outcome, none of us would be untouched.

For this war is the struggle to solve the secrets of the universe. Nothing less will suffice.

Sir John Eccles answers the door of his temporary apartment on the Georgetown University campus, a sweater protecting against the morning chill, his gray hair stubbornly tousled.

He will better resemble a knight of the realm some minutes later when, at the urging of his wife, he dons tie and Harris tweed jacket for a session with a photographer.

Even so, this gentle, elderly, patient man at 75, seems, at first glance, an unlikely warrior.

But then appearances, as he will instruct later, are nothing more than electro-magnetic vibrations. "There's no such thing as taste or light or color in the world," he will say. "These are just electro-magnetic vibrations, ordinary photons. They're just purely physical things but in order to perceive them as light or color, or sound or smell or taste or pain . . . all of this is created out of brain events by some mysterious process that we don't understand."

Then, with a rare bit of ironic amusement, he says, "No one understands that. Even though some will talk as if they do. And part of my task is to try to expose these . . . what you might say are . . . confidence tricks that are put across by psychologists, philosophers and others, all trying to explain that they know everything or soon will.

"And I," says Sir John, with the confidence of conviction, "I don't believe we've started yet."

And so the battle lines are drawn.

John Eccles is variously described as a neurobiologist or neurophysiologist or some other hyphenated appellation preceded by neuro- or cerebro-. He won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1963 for his work in demonstrating the transmission of electrical impulses in the brain.

He probably knows as much or more about how the brain works than anyone in the history of the world, about the brain's 10,000-million (or so) elements organized into its 3 million (or so) modules.

So when he says that his understanding of the brain and how it evolved does not begin to explain the genesis of human consciousness of self, one is compelled to listen.

Sir John, the complete scientist, has become a philosopher, a metaphysician, drawing on the best thought of Western civilization to lead him, with philosopher Karl Popper, to the concept he calls dualist-interationism. It is predictably controversial in some quarters, accepted as near gospel in others. Eccles' work of the past decade or so has led him to conclude that evolution alone cannot explain man's awareness of himself, that there must have been the intervention of some transcental agency, of God, in the infusion into man of soul. Very simply, he hypothesizes that the brain and the mind are separate entities which interact, only the former being the product of genetic evolution.

(A book he wrote with Popper advancing this theory was rather harshly panned in a review in Science magazine in 1978, and Eccles complains in one of his own books that Science never printed his letter in response.)

Dan Robinson, professor of psychology at Georgetown University, notes that "as with so many of his intellectual ancestors in the sciences, Sir John has tested the philosophical and psychological and broad ethical implications of his lifetime of study and discovery."

But, says Robinson, "since we live in a time, to borrow from Sir Kenneth Clark, of 'heroic materialism' where science has become a more severe orthodoxy than traditional religions themselves, there is a certain suspicion and hostility against those who go beyond mere facts . . . judged in some quarters as acts of treason against science. But these are made by those who know very little about the history and essential nature of science, no matter how good they are as technocrats."

Moreover, says Robinson, "There is now a fashionable agnosticism adrift in the sciences today. But Sir John has the luxury of being a renowned scientist so he need not adopt this fashion as part of the membership requirements."

"I am an evolutionist, of course," says Sir John, "but I don't believe that evolution is the final story. I believe it hasn't solved some very fundamental problems.

"The genetic code and natural selection explain quite a lot," he says, but evolution "doesn't explain how I came to exist. It doesn't explain even the origin of consciousness, even animal consciousness. If you look at the most modern texts on evolution you find nothing about mind and consciousness. They assume that it just comes automatically with the development of the brain. But that's not an answer."

He has calculated that, as he has written, "If my uniqueness of self is tied to the genetic uniqueness of self that built my brain, the odds against myself existing are 10 to the 10-thousandth against.

"It is just too improbably to wait around to get the right constructed brain for you. The brain is a computer, you see. Each of us has a computer and we are the programmers of this computer. You are born, as it were, with this wonderful structure evolution and genetic coding has wrought . . . .

"But the soul is this unique creation that is ours for life. It is us. We are experiencing, remembering, creating, suffering, imagining. All of this is processed here with the soul central to it."

Man, argues Eccles, is distinct from animal in his possession of that elusive element of self-awareness or soul. And his acorn for those who would demonstrate otherwise is unrelieved.

A psychologist at a Washington (state) college has reported that he has three chimpanzees who "talk" (in sign language) and therefore "humans aren't as special as we thought.

"Chimpanzees," Eccles has said about this sort of work, "succeed, of course, quite well, at the lower levels of language expression and signal functions. They can ask for things and get them . . . but they don't describe . . . they don't argue . . . They have no value system. They don't make moral decisions. We must never judge animals as if they were just badly brought up human beings."

And finally, "They don't worry about tomorrow. They don't know they're going to die . . . ."

Eccles is in Washington this month to deliver a series of lectures at Georgetown University on "The Nature of Brain and the Problem of Mind."

He is an Australian, but has lost all but a few traces of any down-under accent. He studied at Oxford, a Rhodes scholar, in the 1920s and, as he likes to put it, was "led along the neutral pathways" by his professor and mentor, the poet-physiologist Charles Scott Sherrington, whose biography Eccles co-authored in 1979. His most recent book is "The Human Psyche," a sequel to his earlier "The Human Mystery." Each book is a collection of lectures delivered at the University of Edinburg in 1977-78 and 1978-79.

He has nine children (five girls and four boys) from his first marriage, and 27 grandchildren. He was divorced shortly after he became a Nobel laureate from his wife of 39 years, and 14 years ago married a colleague, Helena Toborikolva, to whom he has dedicated many of his books, reports, essays and collections of lectures.

The Eccles live in Switzerland, but he lectures throughout the world now on his philosophical and metaphysical hypotheses, drawing on current breakthroughs in his own field, or in physics, anthropology, psychology, political science or in literature, music, art, drawing on the classics from Plato to Keats.

And he thinks. Something, he feels, too few of us do too little of.

"What worries me [about the world]," he says, is that " don't think we've come to terms with the enormous explosion of information . . . of the way in which each of us is immersed now -- you might say, drowned -- in too much trivial information so no one thinks any more. It was much better in the days when people could think and talk and get some primitive understanding of their lives.

"Now this terrible disease of over-information means you are so distracted that you don't know how to think, and most people go through life hardly knowing they're alive."

He was, he says, encouraged by the recent events surrounding the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and by the efforts on behalf of talented young people in the sciences. A forthcoming book, he discloses, will expand what he calls his "philosophy for humanity."

He says, "I've struggled all my life to understand the nature of being, the nature of myself. This is my primary reality. I haven't got any clear answers, but the mystery, the wonder has grown, and if people would only get a sense of the mystery of one's existence, this is essentially religious." In the epilogue to his latest book, "The Human Psyche," Sir John writes that the "great questions" must remain unanswered, but "we have to be open to some deep dramatic significance in this earthy life of ours that may be revealed after the transformation of death. We can ask: What does this life mean? We find ourselves here in this wonderfully rich and vivid conscious experience and it goes on through life; but is that the end?

"This self-conscious mind of ours has this mysterious relationship with the brain and as a consequence achieves experiences of human love and friendship, of the wonderful natural beauties, and of the intellectual excitement and joy given by appreciation and understanding of our cultural heritages. Is this present life all to finish in death or can we have hope that there will be further meaning to be discovered? . . . Is it that this life of ours is simply an episode of consciousness between two oblivions, or is there some further transcendent experience of which we can know nothing until it comes?

And then he writes, "I myself have the strong belief that we have to be open to the future. This whole cosmos is not just running on and running down for no meaning. . . Each of us can have the belief of acting in some unimaginable supernatural drama. We should give all we can in order to play our part. Then we wait with serenity and joy for the future revelations of whatever is in store after death."

As for the world today, Sir John says he fears for democracy because "we are not educating our children in the sense of the wonder and mystery of life. We train them to be good technically for one job or another, but we don't teach them to live wisely and well. You have to have deeply thinking, critical people who don't believe all they're told, who can evaluate the information and reject what they must and live with the past as well.

"I am," he says, "much more now, reading and thinking and listening to music and [studying] the art of the past than of the present.

"I think we have to get the dimensions right. . . because unless we get this perspective in time and space of our position in the human story, I don't think we'll ever be wise."