Mind in relation to matter (Part 2), by Dr. Matthew Post (guest contributor)

Today we are pleased to post the second half of Dr. Matt Post’s reflections on neuroscience and the nature of mind (see May 4’s post for the first half). His thoughts were prompted by an article by Sam Kean in Slate, entitled Phineas Gage, Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient.” 

I am surprised by Kean’s conclusion: “Another, deeper reason [Phineas] Gage will probably always be with us is that, despite all that remains murky and obscure, his life did hint at something important: The brain and mind are one.” This claim, of course, is far from certain. That there is a connection between the mind and the brain has likely been known, in some way or another, by all societies at all times. As the old cliché goes: “He wasn’t the same after he got kicked in the head by that mule.” But to say that there is a connection is not the same as saying that the brain and the mind are one. We continue to be amazed by the ability of the brain to adapt and recover functions that belong to parts of the brain that have been utterly destroyed—what is called “neuroplasticity.”

Psychologists Zvi Carmeli and Rachel Blass are relatively lone voices who have raised the important point that our studies of the brain can tell us that someone is doing a calculation, but not what that calculation is or why it matters to them. They highlight the danger of focusing too much on the biology of neurons as opposed to the psychology of people, by claiming that doing so emphasizes form over content; well-defined, biological deficits over complex associations and conflicts between ideas, symbols, and phantasies; and discrete, observable events over holistic contexts of meaning.

Perhaps one day we will indeed discover that the mind and the brain are one, or that (as the cognitive neuroscientist mentioned in Part 1 put it) there is no soul. But such a day is not here and seems far off. For now, it remains that neuroscience is an extremely important discipline, one to which we owe many great benefits, but it must be complemented, first, by a deep and holistic understanding of the human being as endowed with freedom and speech, and, second, of the human community as bound together by how we negotiate cooperation by reasoning with each other. As Carmeli and Blass highlight through their work, psychological traumas are treated by listening and speaking to others, by understanding what they care for and by caring for them.

When we reflect that someone, whose left hemisphere is destroyed, can recover their “functionality” through the care and attention of relatives and through their own unflagging efforts and strength of will, it seems less that personality is the mere epiphenomenon of the brain and more that the human spirit leads and the body follows.

And this is where we, as classical educators, aspire to lead our students, not to pursue the humanities at the expense of the sciences, but to enrich the sciences by restoring to them a deeper sense of the human and the humane.

Dr. Matthew Post is the Assistant Dean of the Braniff Graduate School at the University of Dallas and a Fellow of the Institute for Classical Education. He directs the master’s degree in classical education at UD. This summer, Dr. Post is also leading an online course on Thucydides’ Education in Virtuous Leadership for Great Hearts’ Academy for Classical Teachers.  Registration for this course is open now. 

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