The Mind-Brain Opportunity: An Aristo-Thomistic Neuroscience

Medieval Philosophy to the Rescue: a Thomistic Neuroscience & the Mind-Brain Opportunity

Abstract (2013.I.21) – Sam Houston State University’s First International Conference
on Medieval & Renaissance Thought, 2013, April 4-6, Huntsville, Texas, USA

David E. Schmitt, Ph.D.

Some of the most intractable questions in science relate to the nature of consciousness, with some computationalist philosophers and neuroscientists questioning its very existence.  Commonly referred to as the “mind-brain problem,” the issues involved increasingly coincide with frontier topics in physics concerning the nature of matter, space, time and causality. Indeed, consciousness and will, rather than being isolated, fringe issues at the far outreaches of credible science, are aspects of the universe demanding physical description. That description, once elucidated, most certainly will not be at all distant from a fundamental understanding of the physical universe itself. Curiously, many biologists labor under a conception of the physical world that resembles the physics of the eighteenth century. Neuroscientists are too often plagued in their musings by assumptions involving models of atoms as “little hard balls,” simplistic notions about determinism, puzzlements regarding the interaction between the material and immaterial, how the term substance is most effectively used, inaccurate definitions of information and randomness–as well as by an unfortunate eschewing of all things medieval, ancient, philosophical and not imbued with the approved panache of modernity and its prejudices. These self-imposed strictures result in intellectual commitments and research paradigms that have been less than fully fruitful for purposes of the neuroscientific investigation of consciousness in addition to many relevant topics in the fields of jurisprudence, mental health, and the pursuit of phronesis (practical wisdom). In response, it is suggested here that the psychology of Thomas Aquinas more than adequately provides a framework on which to organize the ever-growing volume of details provided by neuroscientific and physical research. The Aristo-Thomistic categorization of form and matter is precisely the tool required for more aptly speaking and thinking about recurring questions (e.g., how does immaterial mind move matter and vice versa; what is will) as well as modern queries (e.g., how can a photon with no rest mass impart momentum; how and where are diverse sensory data bound into a unified experience). Aquinas anticipated in a non-mathematical way information theory, the transmitter-channel-receiver conception of Shannon & Weaver, and aspects of thermodynamics. His understanding of the sensory phantasm is a beautiful basis for proposing a form-form bridge that mediates viable hypotheses for the relationship of cortical activity, electromagnetic effects, quantum electrodynamics and consciousness. Aquinas was not a complete stranger to Platonic ideas either, which also are attractive to mathematicians interested in the physics of consciousness. The unnecessarily perceived chasm between modern physical neuroscience and Thomistic philosophy is one, essentially, of terminology and prejudice. The appropriate Rosetta Stone is easily had and provokes fertile research projects into not only the quantum basis of consciousness, but topics in anesthesia; clinical neurology and psychiatry (e.g., permanent vegetative states, locked-in-syndrome, blind sight, schizophrenia); pre-verbal and pre-aware sensation, perceptual studies; human performance; ergonomics, human intelligence, development and education; economics and business management. The discomfort held by some upon mention of the soul, as is found throughout the writing of Aquinas, is assuredly unwarranted and often relies upon a faulty conception of the soul as a sort of Casper the Ghost. This disquiet may as well be sometimes suspected to be a certain fear of acknowledging a theological perspective. Thomistic psychology is—to the contrary—admirably accessible without religious endorsement. Aquinas insists on being re-admitted into the discussion. Unlike Casper, he won’t be re-entering through a keyhole–but right straight through the front door.


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