Aristotelian Causation and Neural Correlates of Consciousness


Neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) are neural states or processes correlated with consciousness. The aim of this article is to present a coherent explanatory model of NCC that is informed by Thomas Aquinas’s human ontology and Aristotle’s metaphysics of causation. After explicating four starting principles regarding causation and mind–body dependence, I propose the Mind–Body Powers model of NCC.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    C-fiber activation correlated with pain is the standard example in the philosophical literature; therefore I will often use this example. However, as Koch clarified in personal correspondence (8 October 2017): “Ironically, I and most other neuroscientists would not consider these a true content-specific NCC; just like the optic nerve isn’t a visual NCC. Those are input structures that convey action potentials to cortex.”

  2. 2.

    Personal correspondence (26 December 2016).

  3. 3.

    ‘Hylomorphism’ is often spelled ‘hylemorphism.’ Regarding the nature of the mind–body dependency alluded to here, see Sect. 3.

  4. 4.

    On the value of such explanations, see Tahko (2012, pp. 37, 39, 40–42), Laudan (1977, Ch. 2), and Lowe (1998, p. 9).

  5. 5.

    When citing Aquinas, I use the following acronyms to reference his works: (ST) Summa Theologiae, (SCG) Summa Contra Gentiles, and (QDA) Questions on the Soul. I also use the acronym (DA) when citing Aristotle’s On the Soul.

  6. 6.

    Cf. Moreland’s (2015, p. 201) description of the body as a mode and Lowe’s (2009, p. 68) description of non-Cartesian substance dualism.

  7. 7.

    On whether Aquinas was a dualist, compare Feser (2009, pp. 162–163), Pasnau (2002b, p. xvii), Freddoso (2012, p. 6, footnote 5), Madden (2013, Ch. 8), and Stump (2003, pp. 212–216). See also Aquinas (ST 1a 75.2sc) and Pasnau’s (2002a, p. 225) commentary.

  8. 8.

    Powers are irreducible, according to this view. Contra Hume (2007, p. 55), powers on the Aristotelian view are not a mere projection of ours about reality, but rather powers are objective features of reality (Mayr 2016). Entities in the world have powers that cannot be reduced to non-powers. Following Ryle (1949, p. 31), attempts have been made to reduce powers (or dispositions) by giving a conditional analysis of our statements about powers or by reducing powers to non-power properties (cf. Choi and Fara 2016; Mayr 2016). According to the Aristotelian powers ontology I am advocating, such reductivist strategies do not sufficiently describe powers, which seem to be a real feature of the world.

  9. 9.

    This idea is seen throughout their works regarding human nature. For an example in Aristotle, see Metaphysics (I 1); for Aquinas, see (ST 1a 75.4 ad 1).

  10. 10.

    For in depth exegetical analysis, compare Wippel (2002) and Pegis (1974). My thoughts on the relevant issues have benefited from corresponding with Daniel De Haan.

  11. 11.

    The four internal senses are: common sense, imagination (i.e. phantasia), cogitative power, and memory (Pasnau 2002a, p. 281).

  12. 12.

    Italics mine.

  13. 13.

    Italics mine.

  14. 14.

    See also Marmodoro and Page (2016, p. 16). They likewise emphasize that a substantial form is not an efficient cause.

  15. 15.

    Cf. Haldane (1998, pp. 271–272), Oderberg (2005, p. 90), Lowe (2006, pp. 11–19), Moreland (2016, pp. 116–119; 2018), and Jaworski (2016, p. 281).

  16. 16.

    While we can speak of homogeneity and sameness regarding neurobiology and NCC across a species, it is important to remember we are speaking of homogeneity regarding biological regularities that permit some degree of variation. Variations pertaining to NCC can be due to variations in overall conscious experiences or variations in individual brains across a species.


  1. Allen Institute (2016) Allen Brain Atlas. Seattle, Allen Institute for Brain Science,

  2. Aquinas T (1947) Summa Theologica. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (trans) Benziger Bros edn. Christian Classics Ethereal Library

  3. Aquinas T (1975a) Summa Contra Gentiles, Book Two: Creation. Anderson JF (trans) University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame

  4. Aquinas T (1975b) Summa Contra Gentiles, Book Four: Salvation. O’Neil CJ (trans) University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame

  5. Aquinas T (1984) Questions on the soul. Robb JH (trans) Marquette University Press, Milwaukee

  6. Aquinas T (2002) The treatise on human nature: Summa Theologiae 1a 75–89. Pasnau R (trans) Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis

  7. Barnes J (ed) (1984) The complete works of Aristotle: the revised Oxford translation. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  8. Chalmers DJ (1998) On the search for the neural correlate of consciousness. In: Hameroff SR, Kaszniak AW, Scott AC (eds) Toward a science of consciousness II: the second Tucson discussions and debates. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 219–229

    Google Scholar 

  9. Chalmers DJ (2000) What is a neural correlate of consciousness? In: Metzinger T (ed) Neural correlates of consciousness. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 17–40

    Google Scholar 

  10. Choi S, Fara M (2016) Dispositions. In: Zalta EN (ed) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, Stanford

    Google Scholar 

  11. Cramer SC, Sur M, Dobkin BH et al (2011) Harnessing neuroplasticity for clinical applications. Brain 134:1591–1609

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Crick F, Koch C (1990) Toward a neurobiological theory of consciousness. Semin Neurosci 2:263–275

    Google Scholar 

  13. des Chene D (2000) Life’s form: late Aristotelian conceptions of the soul. Cornell University Press, Ithaca

    Google Scholar 

  14. Feser E (2009) Aquinas: a beginner’s guide. Oneworld, London

    Google Scholar 

  15. Freddoso AJ (2012) Oh My Soul, There’s Animals and Animals: Some Thomistic Reflections on Contemporary Philosophy of Mind. Paper presented at the second Thomistic workshop, Mount Saint Mary College, Newburgh, June 2012

  16. Goodrich GL, Martinsen GL, Flyg HM et al (2013) Development of a mild traumatic brain injury-specific vision sceening protocal: a Delphi study. J Rehabil Res Dev 50(6):757–769

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Haldane J (1998) A return to form in the philosophy of mind. Ratio 11(3):253–277

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Hume D (2007) An enquiry concerning human understanding. Oxford University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  19. Jaworski W (2016) Structure and the metaphysics of mind: how hylomorphism solves the mind–body problem. Oxford University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  20. Koch C (2012) Consciousness: confessions of a romantic reductionist. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  21. Koch C, Massimini M, Boly M et al (2016) Neural correlates of consciousness: progress and problems. Nat Rev Neurosci 17:307–321

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Kripke S (1981) Naming and necessity. Blackwell, Malden

    Google Scholar 

  23. Laudan L (1977) Progress and its problems: towards a theory of scientific growth. University of California Press, Berkeley

    Google Scholar 

  24. Lowe EJ (1998) The possibility of metaphysics: substance, identity, and time. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  25. Lowe EJ (2006) Non-cartesian substance dualism and the problem of mental causation. Erkenntnis 65(1):5–23

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Lowe EJ (2009) Dualism. In: McLaughlin BP, Beckermann A, Walter S (eds) The Oxford handbook of philosophy of mind. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 66–84

    Google Scholar 

  27. Madden JD (2013) Mind, matter, & nature: a thomistic proposal for the philosophy of mind. The Catholic University of American Press, Washington, D.C.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Marmodoro A (2014a) Aristotle on perceiving objects. Oxford University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  29. Marmodoro A (2014b) Causation without glue: Aristotle on causal powers. In: Viano C, Natali C, Zingano M (eds) Les Quatre Causes d’Aristotle: Origins et Interprétations. Peeters, Leuven, pp 221–246

    Google Scholar 

  30. Marmodoro A, Page B (2016) Aquinas on forms, substances and artifacts. Vivarium 54:1–21

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Mayr E (2016) Powers in the history of modern metaphysics. Presentation for University of Oxford: powers structuralism in ancient ontologies, Neo-Aristotelian approaches to the metaphysics of the mind Summer School and Conference, Naples, Italy, 26 September–2 October 2016

  32. Metzinger T (2000) Introduction. In: Metzinger T (ed) Neural correlates of consciousness: empirical and conceptual questions. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  33. Moreland JP (2015) Tweaking Dallas Willard’s ontology of the human person. J Spirit Form Soul Care 8(2):187–202

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Moreland JP (2016) A critique of and alternative to Nancey Murphy’s Christian physicalism. Eur J Philos Relig 8(2):107–128

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Moreland JP (2018) In defense of a Thomistic-like dualism. In: Loose JJ, Menuge AJL, Moreland JP (eds) The Blackwell companion to substance dualism. Wiley Blackwell, Oxford, pp 102–122

    Google Scholar 

  36. Mormann F, Koch C (2007) Neural Correlates of Consciousness. Scholarpedia

  37. Munoz-Cespedes JM, Rios-Lago M, Paul N et al (2005) Functional neuroimaging studies of cognitive recovery after acquired brain damage in adults. Neuropsychol Rev 15(4):169–183

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Murphy N (1998) Human nature: historical, scientific, and religious issues. In: Brown WS, Murphy N, Malony HN (eds) Whatever happened to the soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature. Fortress Press, Minneapolis

    Google Scholar 

  39. Oderberg DS (2005) Hylemorphic dualism. In: Paul EF, Miller FD Jr, Paul J (eds) Personal identity. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp 70–99

    Google Scholar 

  40. Owen M (2019) Neural correlates of consciousness & the nature of the mind. In: Guta M (ed) Consciousness and the ontology of properties. Routledge, New York, pp 241–260

    Google Scholar 

  41. Pasnau R (2002a) Commentary. In: Aquinas T. The Treatise on Human Nature: Summa Theologiae 1a 75–89. Pasnau R (trans) Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, pp 220–378

  42. Pasnau R (2002b) Intoduction. In: Aquinas T. The Treatise on Human Nature: Summa Theologiae 1a 75–89. Pasnau R (trans) Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, pp xii–xxi

  43. Pasnau R (2012) Philosophy of mind and human nature. In: Davies B, Stump E (eds) The Oxford handbook of Aquinas. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 348–368

    Google Scholar 

  44. Pegis A (1974) The seperated soul and its nature in St Thomas. In: Maurer AA (ed) St Thomas Aquinas 1274–1974: commemorative studies. Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto, pp 131–158

    Google Scholar 

  45. Pruss A (2013) Aristotelian forms and laws of nature. Analiza i Egzystencja 24:115–132

    Google Scholar 

  46. Putnam H (1967) Psychological predicates. In: Capitan WH, Merrill DD (eds) Art, mind, and religion. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, pp 37–48

    Google Scholar 

  47. Ryle G (1949) The concept of the mind: 60th Anniversary edn. Routledge, New York

    Google Scholar 

  48. Stump E (2003) Aquinas. Routledge, New York

    Google Scholar 

  49. Tahko TE (2012) Contemporary Aristotelian metaphysics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  50. Tononi G, Koch C (2015) Consciousness: here, there and everywhere? Philos Trans R Soc B 370:1–18

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Wippel J (2002) Thomas Aquinas on the seperated soul’s natural knowledge. In: McEvoy J, Dunne M (eds) Thomas Aquinas: approaches to truth, the Aquinas lectures at Maynooth 1996–2001. Four Courts Press, Portland, pp 114–140

    Google Scholar 

Download references


I want to thank the Tiny Blue Dot Foundation for generously funding my work as the Elizabeth R. Koch Research Fellow for Tiny Blue Dot Consciousness Studies. I also want to thank my fellowship advisor, Christof Koch for constructive comments on an earlier version of this article and many helpful conversations. I am deeply grateful for Aryn Owen’s constructive feedback on my writing. Anna Marmodoro, Nikk Effingham, Jussi Suikkanen, Henry Taylor, Mihretu Guta, Daniel De Haan and an anonymous reviewer also provided very helpful feedback on previous versions of this article, for which I am grateful.


Research funded by the Tiny Blue Dot Foundation.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Matthew Owen.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The author, Matthew Owen, declares that he has no conflict of interest.

Research Involving Human Participants and/or Animals

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Owen, M. Aristotelian Causation and Neural Correlates of Consciousness. Topoi (2018).

Download citation


  • Neural correlates of consciousness
  • NCC
  • Consciousness
  • Aristotelianism
  • Thomism
  • Human ontology
  • Causation
  • Powers
  • Mental powers