Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Catholic philosopher saint can help neuroscience?

Aquinas in stained glass, Beao, Creative Commons
Here, Dominican Br. Christopher attempts to map 13th century Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas onto modern neuroscience:
It turns out that at least one neuroscientist, Walter J Freeman of UC Berkeley, finds that Thomas’s philosophical foundation for explaining the mind-body problem is the most useful for grounding recent studies in nonlinear brain dynamics. Specifically, it is Thomas’s understanding of intentionality that fills the explanatory gap between the complementary observations of lower-level electrophysiological data and higher-level goal-directed behavior.
An interesting scheme is offered, with the following comment:
This is not, of course, a perfect one to one mapping of terms; however, this attempt at translating between the language of Thomas and neuroscience hopefully will generate dialogue between these two communities. Freeman notes that neuroscientists often don’t have a strong grasp of the philosophical questions and issues that relate to their topic of inquiry: how do we think? At the same time, philosophers generally do not have a firm understanding of the contributions modern neuroscience has made to our understanding of the workings of the brain, which certainly should influence any approach to the mind body problem.
Hey, wait a minute. The main reason, in my experience, that neuroscientists "often don't have a strong grasp" of mind-related questions is that they don't believe the mind exists. That is the starting point of their research.

While editing a book that addresses these issues recently, I was struck by the contempt for philosophers a famous neuroscientist exhibited. Had he expressed himself in such terms about any discipline whatever in science, he would certainly have been thought an ignoramus, regardless of his accomplishment in his own field, but no one questions his saying it about philosophers. Worse, even though neuroscience has a track record of zero to a zillion in explaining consciousness - the subject of his enquiry - his confidence was undiminished.

Unless that problem (proud, studied ignorance) is confronted, it is useless to ask whether Aquina's insights would be a help.

Hat tip: The Sheepcat

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