Examining the complex functioning of a human brain as it lay exposed on an operating table can be a heady experience. Wonder, however, can easily lead to a kind of philosophical vertigo. This was evident in a recent essay in the New York Times written by Karl Ove Knausgaard. The famous Norwegian author described his experiences witnessing brain surgery performed by the British neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh. Marsh was in Albania to demonstrate his method of removing tumors from the brains of patients while they were conscious. The patients could respond to various stimuli in the brain so as to provide valuable information about the limits of surgical intervention. Knausgaard was present in the operating theatre, able to peer into the exposed brains, and to talk with the patients while their skulls were open.

Knausgaard witnessed first-hand the connection between electrical stimulation of parts of the brain and bodily movements. Reflecting on what he saw, he asked rhetorically: “How can thoughts arise within this hunk of flesh?” The title of Knausgaard's essay was “An Open Mind,” and his analysis employed much of the materialist presuppositions frequently associated with contemporary developments in the neurosciences. “I had always considered my thoughts as something abstract,” he observed, “but they weren't; they were as material as the heart beating in my chest.” He was sure that, since thoughts are nothing more than the concrete interaction of cells in the brain, “the same was true of the mind, the soul, the personality; all of it was fixed in the cells and originated as a result of the various ways in which these cells reacted with one another.” His analysis was not limited to human nature: “All of our systems, too— communism, capitalism, religion, science—they also originated in electrochemical currents flowing through this three-pound lump of flesh encased in the skull.” After asking the surgeon whether he believed in God and life after death, Knausgaard reported that Marsh “just shook his head” and responded: “‘This is it.'”

Is “this it”? Do the wonders described by contemporary neuroscience require us to affirm a radical materialist conception of human nature? Knausgaard's observation is consistent with a widely shared view evident, for example, in the work of Sir Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. A little more than two decades ago, in The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul,” Crick wrote, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Paul Churchland, the Canadian philosopher of the neurosciences, has remarked that living beings “are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process [evolution] . . . . We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.” For him and others committed to what is known as eliminative materialism, the notion of some “immaterial soul” as an explanation for human consciousness and cognition is a relic from a less enlightened age; it is a “myth, false not just at the edges, but to the core.”

If one brings to the analysis what neuroscientists tell us about the complex structure of the brain and about the connections they are discovering between electrochemical activity in the brain and human behavior, a mechanistic understanding of human nature and, in particular, of mental activity, then we are likely to find what we have already assumed. That is, if we assume a materialist natural philosophy according to which there is not anything more to nature than material components, then we might very well conclude with Knausgaard that our thoughts are as material as the hearts beating inside our chests.

This commitment to an exclusively materialist understanding of the world, into which one fits the evidence of the empirical sciences, is the result in large part of a misguided philosophical judgment that affirms a strict disjunction: either we explain the living in terms of material, mechanically operating constituents, or we explain it in terms of some mysterious spiritual substance, some vital force. There is no substitute to materialism but magic; for there is no philosophical position other than materialism that is compatible with modern science. This is true, so the argument goes, because this mysterious substance, this vital force, yields itself even in theory to no method of investigation; it must be cast aside, with the result that one is left with the inevitable conclusion that there is nothing more to living beings than their material parts. Either we have a dualist conception of nature—body separate from soul—or we have a materialist conception. Since science offers no evidence for the former, the latter must be true. To repeat Churchland's admonition, we need to learn to live with this fact.

But do we? The question here is not whether neuroscience offers exciting new evidence about human behavior. Rather, it is how we interpret the evidence. The interpretation occurs on at least two levels: the specifically empirical within the explanatory domain of the neurosciences themselves, and, on a more general level, within the philosophy of nature. The latter brings together evidence from all the natural sciences and seeks to understand what nature, time, change, causality, and the like, are. It is within the philosophy of nature that one examines the coherence and adequacy of views such as materialism and dualism. Indeed, the philosophy of nature can help us to see that materialism and dualism do not exhaust the possible explanatory categories of the world.

Another alternative, and a view that can incorporate what contemporary science discloses, can be found in the thought of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. For them, living things need to be understood in terms of material and immaterial principles; not that an organism is two separate substances joined together (dualism), but that there is more to an organism (indeed to any natural entity) than its material components. The very intelligibility of nature and changes in nature calls for a view other than that set forth by materialism. Dualism also ought to be rejected, since it calls into question the very unity of natural substances that we find in the world.

One of the debilitating features of the materialist view is the identification of natural entities as merely incidental arrangements of material parts. This failure to understand how such entities are real unities is especially evident in discussions of living things. The principle by which an organism is an organism, a unified whole, escapes the analysis of those who reduce the organism to its material parts and their arrangement. Organisms are real causes of what they do; they are not simply pushed and pulled about by extrinsic forces. But they cannot be real causes if they do not exist as real unified wholes. The source of that unity is other than the sum of material parts and processes.

What Knausgaard sees in the brains of patients being operated on does not require an acceptance of the reduction of thinking, the mind, and the soul to exclusively physical processes. We ought to expect a correlation between physical phenomena observed in the functioning of the brain and various features of human behavior. The patients with whom Knausgaard spoke, as their brains were being probed, thought about what he said, and gave answers. Their brains did not think; the patients themselves, living unities, thought and spoke. The very abilities to understand, to form abstract concepts, to distinguish good from bad, and to will the good, offer ample evidence against the philosophical judgment that when we look at the brain and its complex processes we are somehow seeing the mind itself. What the mind is, indeed what a human being is, is open to rational reflection, but reason encompasses more than the domain of the natural sciences.

William E Carroll is Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford and a Member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion of the University of Oxford.

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