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Neuroscience and Hylomorphism

Michael Egnor

R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things, has a fine essay on the mind-brain problem that addresses many of the issues that Steven Novella and I have been debating over the past year or so. The substance of my arguments against Dr. Novella’s dogmatic materialism and his astonishing hubris regarding the application of neuroscience to the mind brain problem (“Every single prediction of materialism has been proven…”) has been twofold.
First, I assert that the materialistic understanding of the mind isn’t even logically coherent. The salient characteristics of the mind, such as intentionality, qualia, free will, restricted access, continuity of self through time, incorrigibility, and unity of consciousness are not properties of matter, and there are very strong philosophical and logical reasons to reject the thesis that the mind is matter or that the mind is caused entirely by matter, without remainder. Materialist theories of the mind haven’t even reached logical coherence, let alone empirical verification.
My second argument is that, contrary to the hyperbolic claims of materialists, modern neuroscience accords quite well with dualist (and hylomorphic) understandings of the mind-brain relationship. The pioneer in the scientific study of the relationship between the brain and the mind was UCSF neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet, who described his own understanding of the mind-brain relationship as essentially property dualism. Other leaders in neuroscience, such as neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (the father of epilepsy surgery), Sir John Eccles (Nobel Laurate in medicine for his pioneering work on neuronal synapses) and Charles Sherrington (the father of modern neuroscience) were explicit dualists. The inference to dualism in neuroscience has been emphasized by UCLA neurologist and neuroscientist Jeffery Schwartz, who has documented the substantial evidence that mental changes can induce measurable changes in brain function. Obviously these observations aren’t decisive; a materialist could assert that the brain changes were induced by other brain changes, and that the mental states were epiphenomenal, but the salient point is that advances in neuroscience admit dualist as well as materialist interpretations.
In his essay “Brain Science and the Soul,” Reno, writing from the Christian perspective on the mind-body problem, observes:

We often hear that modern science requires us to reject traditional Christian views of the human person. The argument goes something like this: If we can see the physical process by which ideas are associated or feelings felt or decisions made, then surely we must admit that human beings are nothing more than physical entities. The concept of a soul, so we are told, is irrelevant…Well, it turns out that science now points us in a different direction. These days, cognitive scientists are doing experiments that use MRI technology to visualize the brain while subjects undergo experiences, solve problems, and make decisions. This approach allows scientists to see and theorize about the significance and sources of patterns in our brains, patterns that shape the way we respond to the world. We are learning about the highway system of neurological movement, which turns out to be decisive for the way our minds work. ..The new emphasis on patterns of neural activity suggests an important support for the traditional Christian understanding of the soul. The cutting edge of brain science makes it clear that it is as foolish to say that our brains are just neurons as it is to say that highways are just concrete and asphalt. After all, what matters to the motorist is the way in which the concrete is organized to create an interlocking system of usable roads. The same holds for the gray matter inside our heads.

Reno points out new research that is quite consonant with a traditional dualist view of the mind:

What’s striking, however, is that the new scientific work on the brain offers an even more interesting and dramatic confirmation of traditional views of the soul. In a recent MRI study, “The Vulcanization of the Human Brain: A Neural Perspective on Interactions Between Cognition and Emotion,” Princeton brain scientist Jonathan D. Cohen has looked at patterns of brain activity while subjects respond to moral dilemmas and make moral decisions. It turns out that the brain patterns related to moral decisions need to be trained. The soul must be disciplined…Our solutions to ethical problems, Cohen’s work shows, are influenced by the intercommunication between different parts of the brain. Subjects with a high degree of neural activity linking the brain stem to the frontal lobe tend to allow emotional responses to override rational assessments of moral dilemmas. Subjects make more rational decisions, he reports, when the neurological activity from the primitive part of the brain is blocked from interfering with the frontal lobe. Cohen then concludes that these patterns of open and blocked communication are not fixed by nature. They solidify over time. Our brain patterns are vulcanized, as he puts it, and this occurs by the constant repetition of these patterns. The river cuts its channel.

And indeed, Reno observes, this hylomorphic (‘matter-form’) understanding of the relationship between the mind and the body, which was further developed from Aristotle by St. Thomas Aquinas, has its roots not only in classical Greek philosophy but in the earliest Christian understanding of man:

The Christian tradition adds the ambitions of holiness to Aristotle’s ideal of virtue, but the same view of the soul is at work. Whether infused by God as supernatural virtues or won by ascetic discipline, the soul worthy of fellowship with God is not gilded with a strange, ethereal substance. The soul–the patterns of the body and especially the brain–is “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29)… So much for the confident materialists who thought they had the facts on their side. Today’s science seems to confute yesterday’s scientific propagandists. As David Brooks observed in a recent column, “The momentum has shifted away from hardcore materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief, and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings.”

Reno recognizes the importance of this research for the dualist-materialist debate:

Daniel Dennett, call your office: The human person is pretty much what the Christian tradition has always assumed. We’re not just stuff. We’re stuff given life in a very special way: We’re animals with rational souls capable of remarkable change and development. Precisely because a human soul is unstable, and subject to influence, and hardening over time, the Christian tradition has put a great deal of weight on moral and spiritual discipline in order to “vulcanize” the networks that lead to properly ordered emotions, thoughts, and decisions. Now it seems that brain science is showing that the traditional emphasis on moral and spiritual discipline was exactly right.

Reno recognizes that neuroscience is confirming traditional dualist ways of understanding the human mind:

Aristotle thought that the virtues were connected somehow, so much so that he doubted that a man could be both courageous and a glutton, or prudent while nonetheless intemperate. Here again today’s science seems to vindicate the old view.

My own view of the relationship between the mind and the brain tends to hylomorphism, specifically the variant of traditional Aristotelian hylomorphism called Thomistic dualism, which is the view that the soul (of which the mind is a part) is the substantial form of the body (of which the brain is a part). Thomistic dualism has much strength, not the least of which is that it offers a intrinsic explanation for the interaction between mind and brain and it is entirely consistent with the correlation between mental states and brain states that is evident in neuroscience. Correlation between mind and brain states, but not identity or reduction, is precisely what is predicted by Thomistic dualism. Furthermore in the Thomistic view the ‘rational’ soul is that aspect of the soul (i.e. that aspect of the form of the body) that is in some respects independent of matter. Thus the Thomistic view incorporates subjective properties of the mind, and can give rise to the uniquely mental properties of intentionality, free will, qualia, etc. on which materialist theories crumble.
The hylomorphic understanding of the mind-brain relationship may bridge the “Explanatory Gap” in our understanding of how the subjective properties of the human mind are related to the objective properties of the human brain. Hylomorphism involves the attribution of formal and final causes to our understanding of nature, not merely efficient and material causes which have been the mainstay of scientific investigation over the past several centuries. Indeed, many aspects of nature can be understood for practical purposes simply by investigating efficient and material causes, but some of the profound difficulties that we have encountered in explaining the mind using materialistic paradigms may be the result of erroneously restricting our repertoire for mental causation to material and efficient causes. It may be that the mind can only be understood by reference to formal and final causes, in addition to efficient and material causes. Our difficulty with understanding the mind, and particularly with understanding the ‘Hard Problem’ of the mind, may be that we’re using a scientific paradigm fit for molecules and motion, but not for meaning and purpose.
The mind-brain problem is a crisis for materialism — just as the abundant evidence for design in biology is a crisis for materialism — because materialism invokes only material and efficient causes, which are inadequate to explain several important aspects of nature.
Materialism is an incomplete understanding of reality.
Note: In my original version of this post, I inadvertently described Benjamin Libet’s view of the mind as “substance dualism”. I meant to say “property dualism”, and I have corrected it in the post.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.