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Egnor — Introducing the Aristotelian Neuroscientist

David Klinghoffer


At Mind Matters, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor sketches what he calls the Aristotelian neuroscientist, in contrast with a neuroscientist constrained by the currently favored mechanical philosophy that sees the brain as just a machine or a computer. Picture the two scientists respectively trying to understand Hamlet:

[C]onsider how a neuroscientist working from a “mechanical” bias might understand Hamlet’s killing of his uncle Claudius (who murdered Hamlet’s father, married his mother, and usurped the throne) near the end of the play.

The neuroscientist working from a mechanical perspective would study the material and efficient causes of Hamlet’s act of revenge. The “mechanistic” scientist would investigate Hamlet’s neuroanatomy and neurophysiology — the localization of his emotional and motor activity in his amygdala and motor cortex. He would study the secretion of neurotransmitters in the Prince of Denmark’s brain and spinal cord and the propagation of action potentials through his nerves and the contraction of his muscles as delivered the fatal blow.

But what of Hamlet’s understanding and motives? What of his grief, his anger, his confusion, his indecision? What of Hamlet’s profound personal angst, which is the core of Shakespeare’s play?

The mechanistic neuroscientist — ostensibly devoted to a comprehensive understanding of Hamlet’s mind and brain — would have little of relevance to say about Hamlet’s complexities. Perhaps the scientist could pinpoint some imbalance of neurotransmitters or a storm of dendritic depolarizations in the prince’s limbic system, but such neurophysiology would add little to our understanding.

By contrast, the Aristotelian can appreciate both the physiology and the drama to which the mechanist is blind. The latter is a bit like the child entering the sublime library imagined by Einstein and seeing just empty shelves.

Image: Scene from Hamlet, by Coke Smyth [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.