What is philosophy of mind? What has neuroscience taught modernity about the soul? Dr. Matt Nelson sits down with Dr. James Madden, a professor of philosophy at Benedictine College, to talk about these important questions.
Let’s start off with a biographical question. Tell us about your choice to become a professional philosopher. Did you always desire to take that route in life?
I have been involved in academic philosophy for my entire adult life, but that wasn’t the plan for me as a youngster. I went off to college mostly concerned about playing football, though I had some vague sense of wanting to study in the humanities and social sciences. During my sophomore year I serendipitously fell into some philosophy courses, and I knew right away that I wanted to center my studies around this discipline. The problems these early courses raised to me resonated with issues that seemed to be on my mind since I was a child. When the chance to go to graduate school arose, I figured I would stick with studying philosophy for as long as I could get away with it, without having to borrow any money to keep it going. That was twenty-three years ago!
You are a philosopher deeply embedded in the Thomistic tradition. Why is the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas so invaluable?
How deeply I’m embedded in the Thomistic tradition is an interesting question. I am definitely “one untimely born” with regard to Thomism. My undergraduate and most of my graduate studies centered around secular and mostly contemporary philosophical schools of thought. My main training was in analytic philosophy (philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of religion). I didn’t even start reading St. Thomas with any seriousness until after I had begun my dissertation. I was working on the contemporary relevance of Leibniz’s notion of natural purpose, and that stream of thought led me back to the medieval scholastics. Subsequently, I wrote a couple chapters of my dissertation on St. Thomas, which really opened up a new world for me philosophically. My faculty positions have required me to teach a great deal of St. Thomas’s material, so the last seventeen years have been spent sorting all that out. I see my background as putting me into a unique position to communicate between contemporary philosophy and the Thomistic tradition.
That being said, I think St. Thomas’s ideas are particularly relevant to us now, which has impressed ever since my first serious encounter with his thought. If you look at the situation St. Thomas faced in his historical moment, you can see some very important similarities to our own. Namely, the Aristotelianism that was newly reintroduced in the West was the cutting edge science of his day, though it had the appearance of being contrary to the Augustinian theology that dominated the medieval university up to that point. St. Thomas’s great achievement was to show that the new Aristotelian approach to nature posed no theological threat, and in fact supported and enhanced a creational theology. On St. Thomas’s view, the fact that nature and knowledge of nature have an integrity all their own is no threat to the basic theological claims of Christianity. That is not because science and religion occupy separate domains, but because the claims of faith and the claims of reason (natural science, metaphysics, etc.) can be understood as forming a coherent account of the world in the broadest sense.
All of that is pretty familiar to us today. We face claims that reason, mainly under the guise of various forms of scientific reductionism, is incompatible with the theological claims of Christianity. In its form, this is not a new problem. Though there are new details, St. Thomas has given us, through his own analogous dealings with a similar difficulty, a model for how to go forward. For me, this model is where we find the perennial value St. Thomas’s philosophical ideas.
In 2013 you published your first book Mind, Matter, and Nature: A Thomistic Proposal for the Philosophy of Mind (Catholic University of America Press). First, what is philosophy of mind? Second, why did you choose to write a book with that focus?
Philosophy of mind can mean a lot of different things. In Mind, Matter, and Nature, I focus on philosophy of mind as a treatment of the mind-body problem, i.e., the question as to how conscious, mental, or psychological phenomena (thinking, willing, feeling, etc.) relate to physical, bodily phenomena. Are mental occurrences just the very same things as events in the bodies, mainly the nervous system? On the face of it, it’s hard to say. For example, certainly I can’t think about the chameleon in the cage across the room from me independently of a whole range of physical events going on in my nervous system. True enough, but what do those physical occurrences have to do with a chameleon? There is nothing chameleon-like about them. The philosophy of mind is the philosophical sub-discipline tasked with dealing with these sorts of problems.
My main reason for choosing to write a book on this topic is simply that philosophy of mind has been the most fascinating issue to me since I took my first philosophy course. The mind-body problem has been and continues to be a multidecade obsession of mine. Less self-indulgently, philosophy of mind is particularly relevant to us now. There have been many interesting and relevant discoveries in the neurosciences, artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary psychology that have inspired a lot of profound thinking in the philosophy of mind over the last few decades. As part of that overall integrative approach to faith and reason that I take from St. Thomas, it seemed to me very important to me that we bring Thomism into the conversation about the mind-body problem.
Can you give us a sketch of your principle argument in this book?
Philosophy of mind, quite famously even among self-identified philosophers of mind, has come to an impasse between what are now fairly standardized versions of materialism (minds just are brains) and substance dualism (minds are distinct entities from brains). That way of putting it is pretty facile, but it will work for our purposes. Both sides of the divide have deep problems. The materialist has a hard time recognizing the obvious reality of mental phenomena, once we try to identify them with physical things. The dualist has a hard time accounting for how non-physical things can be at all relevant to what goes on in physical things, especially when we have perfectly good physical explanations available. Within the confines of standard contemporary philosophy of mind, it seems there are no good answers. That is all very quick, but see the book for the details.
I argue that the source of this impasse in the mind-body problem is not the account of minds, but the standard account of bodies. Human beings are organisms, a kind of physical thing. This is maybe the most apparent fact to us. Thus, we need to begin our account of human nature, even though it is a minded-sort of nature, with an account of bodily nature in general. This is what Thomists traditionally call “philosophy of nature.” Before we do philosophy of mind, we need to do philosophy of nature. If we follow the sort of Aristotelian, hylomorphist philosophy of nature that St. Thomas develops, we get a model according to which the “mental” and the “physical” are not opposed. That is, the mind-body problem is biproduct of a botched account of bodies, not minds. Once we have that philosophy of nature in place, we can fairly “easily” diffuse the mind-body problem.
Here are a couple recent lectures in which I give a good bit more detail:
Cognitive Science vs. the Soul
Who are some contemporary thinkers (philosophers, theologians, etc) who have had a critical impact on your intellectual formation?
As far as Catholic philosophers go, Charles Taylor and Alasdair McIntyre are my two biggest sources. Their different approaches to the relationship between the Church and modernity have set the stage for my own internal dialogue in many ways. I see them as role models for philosophers wishing to be responsible to contemporary ideas while remaining within the Catholic intellectual tradition. Taylor’s book The Language Animal has also done much to develop my approach to mind since I published Mind, Matter, and Nature. With respect to the philosophy of mind, Ludwig Wittgenstein and later philosophers who were deeply influenced by him, e.g., Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach, have always been a part of my thinking. Similarly, my orientation in the philosophy of mind is influenced by what is known as the “Pittsburg School,” which is associated with such thinkers as Wilfrid Sellars (I wrote my master’s thesis on philosophy of mind in Wittgenstein and Sellars), Robert Brandom, John McDowell, and John Haugeland.
Let’s shift gears for our last question. You are an avid power-lifter and endurance sport competitor. As a husband, father of six children, and full-time college professor and academic, some may wonder why—and how—you bother to take the time to stay strong and fit. So the question is: why and how do you do it?
I actually haven’t been involved in powerlifting or endurance sports for a few years. Instead, I have been training for competition in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a form of submission grappling (think of wrestling with fewer holds barred). Last December I took third-place (both for my weight class and “open” – no weight class) for my age and belt rank at the IBJJF World No-Gi Championships. I highly recommend this sport, and I believe it has truly transformative possibilities. My wife and our six children now train and compete. We are all on the mat almost every day.
Why do I do it? I think this actually stems from my philosophical views. I see human beings as a kind of organism. We don’thave bodies, we are living bodies. That’s not to say there is nothing special or transcendent about us, but only that we are special and transcendent kind of organism. Our bodies came online with capacities for fighting, competing, and physical problem-solving. We are designed to face and overcome physical challenges through both our intellectual powers and our physical prowess. That is the fascinating hybrid nature of the human being. The need to confront physical challenge, in a particularly human way, is not merely accidental to our nature, but is integral to what we are. Thus, complete human flourishing involves this sort of dealing with physical challenges. Allowing our bodies to atrophy prematurely and to refuse competition or resistance from physical challenge is to alienate ourselves from our nature and history. These need not be expressed through sport or martial arts; I think physical skills like carpentry, gardening, plastic arts, etc. probably play a similar role. They are all intelligent involvements with the natural world that pushes back against our whims. I, however, have been an athlete my whole life, so sport has always been my main mode of addressing this human need, and I think that the competitive, confrontational aspect of sport (especially something like jiu jitsu) is one of the few avenues left to us for an expression of the virtue of physical courage. Be that as it may, the notion that we can achieve authentic human flourishing without a rigorous and challenging engagement with the physical world is to ignore the essentially embodied status of the human being. As Wittgenstein puts it, “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.”
How do I do it? Well, first don’t overestimate how a busy a college professor really is. My schedule, most days, is pretty fluid. Nevertheless, whatever the demands of your job and family might be, whether or not you have time to get into shape, compete, and/or develop a meaningful skill is simply a matter of commitment. I always have time to train, because I have made it a priority. For example, rarely when people ask me “Have you seen new series X on Netflix?” can I answer “Yes.” The reason is that I don’t spend much time watching T.V., because I am committed to other things. You have to ask yourself whether the things that currently clutter your life, e.g., TV, social media, junk food, etc., are actually more important to you than getting in shape or mastering a skill. If you purged your day of all those useless distractions, would you really be so busy? Until you have really tried to answer that question, quit saying you are too busy. In the vast majority of cases, the problem is some self-imposed obstacle. I have the same twenty-four hours each day as you do, and I train at least once every day. What kind of life do you want to live? It’s just a question of commitment.
You can find much more about my approach to sport and fitness here: Tactical Barbell Presents Ageless Athlete by Dr. James Madden