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Neuroscientist Michael Egnor on Thomas Aquinas and “A Map of the Soul”

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Our contributor Michael Egnor writes beautifully in a profound essay at First Things, “A Map of the Soul.” His clinical experiences as a neurosurgeon reflect the findings of other researchers, presaged by medieval and classical thinkers, notably Thomas Aquinas. Materialism expects a human being to be reducible to purely material stuff. Science, medicine, and philosophy, on the other hand, indicate that we “straddle” realms of the material and the spiritual.

He begins memorably:

“Doctor, what’s that sound?”

The voice startled me. I was performing brain surgery on a woman with a tumor near the area that controls speech. I was removing much of her frontal lobe, in order to remove the tumor. To map her speech area with an electrical probe, I needed her to be awake. So I performed the surgery under mild local sedation only. The brain itself feels no pain.

It took me a moment to realize that it was my patient, not a nurse, speaking to me from under the surgical drapes. “Just the sound of the instruments,” I replied, not entirely candid. The sound was a lot of her frontal lobe going up my sucker into a canister.

“It’s loud,” she said, half-laughing from nervousness and a sedative. “How’s the operation going?”

“Fine. Everything’s going well. How do you feel?”

“OK. Sleepy. It doesn’t hurt.”

We chatted as I worked. She was drowsy, but quite coherent. She went on to recover nicely. Her tumor had been benign, and her prognosis was good.

Francis Crick, neuroscientist and co-discoverer of the helical structure of DNA, expressed the widespread view that the mind is a function of material stuff: “A person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influenced them.” How, then, is it possible to converse with someone while removing the large portions of her brain that serve thought and reasoning?

I’m a neuroscientist and professor of neurosurgery. The mind-brain question haunts me. Neurosurgeons alter the brain on a daily basis, and what we find doesn’t fit the prevailing view that the brain runs the mind as computer hardware runs software.

I have scores of patients who are missing large areas of their brains, yet who have quite good minds. I have a patient born with two-thirds of her brain absent. She’s a normal junior high kid who loves to play soccer. Another patient, missing a similar amount of brain tissue, is an accomplished musician with a master’s degree in English.

How can this be? It wasn’t until I read Thomas Aquinas that I began to understand.

Following Aristotle, Aquinas “mapped” the soul, with its vegetative and sensitive (both material-based) and intellectual (non-material) powers. Patients missing large parts of their brain tissue can lead normal lives because the material, the tissue, is not all there is to us.

Scientists find confirmation of this. Most hauntingly, perhaps:

In the past decade, British researcher Adrian Owen has found using fMRI imaging that some patients with such severe brain damage that they are considered to be in a persistent vegetative state are actually capable of sophisticated thought. The “comatose” patients’ brain scans show that, in reply to questions by an examiner, the patients are in fact thinking and imagining.

This demonstrates the truth of an observation we’ve made before: the unique contribution of physicians and engineers to understanding questions of life’s origins, and its nature. Evolutionists and other materialist theoreticians can operate in blessed isolation from how bodies (and brains) actually work. Thus insulated from reality, dogmatic principle carries the day and shapes whatever evidence they consider.

Along comes a neuroscientist and neurosurgeon, however, reporting broad experience with real lives and real people that decisively refutes the dogma. How fascinating to consider, too, that philosophy had already been there, knew it all along, centuries or millennia before. A wonderful and important piece. Don’t miss reading the rest here.

Image credit: geralt, via Pixabay.