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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.

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  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.


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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.

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Owen, M. Aristotelian Causation and Neural Correlates of Consciousness. Topoi 39, 1113–1124 (2020).

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