The Soul and the Brain

I had a student say to me in class recently, “Mr. Grayson, isn’t it strange that the brain is the only organ of the body that named itself.”

I thought about what he said for a moment, but then I replied, “No, it didn’t. The brain did name the brain. The person named the brain.”

Perhaps I was trying to show off some of my time taking philosophy classes, but I thought it was an important distinction to make. In fact, I thought it was important enough to be the topic of an article here.

The big mistake is that the student was conflating the brain and the soul. The Greek word for soul that Plato uses is “psyche,” which is also translated as mind. When Christians use the word “soul” we mean a bit more than what Plato did, but at the very least our minds and our souls are intertwined. This point is taken up by Plato’s student Aristotle.

For Aristotle, the soul is not a physical thing. It is immaterial. The intellect was a receptivity or power that transcends physicality and is not dependent on physicality. Aristotle makes the point that “Thus that in the soul which is called mind (by mind I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges) is, before it thinks, not actually any real thing. For this reason it cannot reasonably be regarded as blended with the body: if so, it would acquire some quality, e.g. warmth or cold, or even have an organ like the sensitive faculty: as it is, it has none.” (On the Soul, III, 4) The mind cannot be a part of the body, because then it would have to have material qualities. Aristotle uses warmth and cold in the above quote, but you could easily use other physical qualities like size and weight. The brain can be warm, cold, big, small, heavy, or light. But the mind cannot be any of those things.

The organ of the brain presents the sense information to the intellect to do its activity of thinking, but it is not the brain that does the thinking. We need this sense information in order to do the activity of thinking. As St. Thomas points out, “suspension of the senses necessarily involves a hindrance to the judgment of the intellect.” (Summa Theologiae, I, q 84, a 8)

The act of thinking is not completely divorced from physicality. But this brings us back to the immateriality component of the soul that Aristotle brought up. St. Thomas agreed with Aristotle that this thinking involves having knowledge that is “immaterial, universal, and necessary.” (Summa Theologiae, I, q 84, a 1)

The reason for this, as St. Thomas says, “the received is in the receiver according to the mode of the receiver.” ^6^ This means that while physical things can be known to humans, they are known in an intelligible mode, because that is the nature of the human mind. ^7^

But remember, we are not angels. We are not purely spiritual beings. To be human is to be a body and soul together. The mind has an important connection to the senses and the brain. The object of intellect transcends senses, but in order to have access to its objects, you need the senses. Without the senses, reason would never actualize.

In other words, like the beasts, we draw in data from the senses. But unlike the beasts, we can come to understand that data in a way they cannot. We don’t just see red objects, we can think of “redness” itself. We don’t just see objects of equal size, we can think of the concept of “equality.” We can turn sense experience into objects of thought. This is because we have the power of reason which draws intelligibility (or reads intelligibility into) sense images.

But isn’t the mind affected when there is damage to the brain?

Yes, but it is not damaged.

The brain is the organ that presents the sense information to the mind. If the brain is damaged, then it may fail to present the sense data to the mind. In this case, nothing is presented to the mind in order for the mind to do its work of thinking.

I know this has been a long digression into philosophy of the mind. But returning to the point my student made, it is an important digression. My student was assuming that the person is reducible to their brain. There is a materialist assumption at the heart of what he said; he assumed that at our core is a physical, not a spiritual reality.

This is a subtle but dangerous trend of thought. Our bodies are part of our identities, but there is more to us that organs, bone, tissue, and blood. At our core, we are spiritual beings expressed in physical realities.

To lose one or the other is to lose what it is to be human.

Copyright 2022, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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