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Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

Do Brains Equal Intellect?

Do Brains Equal Intellect?

“What is man that you should be mindful of him, or the son of man that you should care for him?” the Psalmist asks of God (Psalm 8:5).

By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the answer comes: “You have made him little less than the angels.”

Not everyone agrees with this divine opinion of man’s dignity and place in creation. There are materialists who hold that human beings are matter and nothing more. They claim man is merely quantitatively, not qualitatively superior to other animals. He doesn’t possess an immaterial, immortal soul.

In contrast to materialism is the classical view of human nature, which says man is a rational animal, different in kind as well as degree from other animals because he possesses immaterial powers of intellect and will. This was the view of ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, and, until recently, it was the view as well of most other philosophers in the Western tradition.

The classical view is compatible with Christian revelation, while the materialist view simply isn’t. Christianity teaches that man is made in the image and likeness of God and has an immaterial.aspect to his being–an immortal soul, not possessed by other animals. He possesses intellect and free will, which are immaterial powers of the soul.

Since materialism and the classical view can’t both be true, the dispute boils down to this: Which interpretation of man is more compatible with what we know about human beings?

Adequately answering this question entails more than slinging Bible verses because materialists don’t care what the Bible says on the subject. They’re interested in adjudicating the issue at the bar of reason.

This is precisely how philosopher Mortimer J. Adler approaches the subject in Intellect: Mind Over Matter. The book isn’t a theological or apologetical work, but a highly readable, philosophical argument for the immateriality of man’s intellect and its powers.

The author’s principal goal is the refutation of materialist errors regarding the intellect. He accomplishes this by demonstrating the human intellect’s uniqueness and its ability to do things which can only be explained by an immaterial power within man.

In the late 1960s Adler wrote The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes, which presented the case for the uniqueness of the human intellect. There he challenged the claims of behavioral scientists that some higher mammals possess the same intellectual powers as man.

Intellect restates and updates the arguments presented in the earlier book. Adler acknowledges that some higher animals possess perceptual mental abilities, but he also says only man thinks conceptually. The distinction between perceptual abstraction, which is possible for some animals, and conception, of which man alone capable, is a decisive one.

Perceptual abstraction doesn’t enable animals to understand things they haven’t perceived or things which are by nature imperceptible (such as God or angels). It also fails to explain a uniquely human behavior: the use of general terms–common nouns designating kinds of things to refer to universal objects of thought.

This point is illustrated by the notion of triangularity: “We can, for example, perceive visible figures that are triangles of a particular shape and size; we can also imagine or remember particular triangles. But we cannot by means of our sensitive powers think of triangularity in general, triangularity not particularized by shape, size, or color.”

Our use of general terms to refer to universal objects of thought such as triangularity requires more than perceptual abstraction. It involves true concept-forming abilities, something possessed by man alone and which transcends the sensitive powers man shares with higher animals.

Why does the possession of this concept-forming ability support the immateriality of the intellect? Adler writes: “The argument hinges on two propositions. The first asserts that concepts whereby we understand what different kinds or classes of things are like consist of meanings that are universal.

“The second proposition asserts that nothing that exists physically is ever actually universal. Anything that is embodied in matter exists as an individual, a singular thing that may also be a particular instance of this class or that.”

If concepts are universal and can’t be embodied in matter, and if concepts do exist in our minds, then they must be acts of an intellectual, immaterial power, not the product of a material organ such as the brain.

This conclusion runs counter to what many neurologists say about the brain. They point to contemporary research which demonstrates how electrical stimulation of the brain can cause conscious experiences. Doesn’t this indicate our thoughts are a function of biochemistry and not the result of an immaterial power called the intellect?

No, contends Adler. Such research proves only that the brain is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for human intellectual activity. He stresses how we can’t think conceptually without our brains, but that we don’t think with them:

“As the eye or ear, together with the brain, are sense-organs, the brain itself is not a mind-organ; or, more precisely, the brain is not an intellect-organ. The most that can be said of the brain in relation to the human mind is that it is an intellect-support organ, an organ upon which the intellect depends, without which it cannot think, but with which it does not think.”

What does this conclusion say about traditional Christian doctrines such as man’s creation in God’s image and the immortality of the human soul? Adler’s argument lends support for, but doesn’t prove, both doctrines by positing the immateriality of the intellect, which implies a spiritual component to human nature.

On the other hand, Adler’s conclusion that we cannot think without our brains, even if we don’t think conceptually with them, appears to conflict with the doctrine of immortality, which asserts a person’s awareness, as well the soul itself, survives the death of the body.

Although the intellect’s immateriality may provide a basis for the soul’s continuance after death, its dependence on the corporeal powers of perception, memory, and imagination seems to suggest that the soul, left to itself, would be unable to function after its separation from the body.

A possible solution to this problem could rest with God’s intervention after death to preserve the soul’s life from becoming one bereft of activity. The necessity of God’s grace to preserve the soul’s functioning would also serve to point to another eschatological truth–the resurrection of the body. Adler addressed this point in another book, The Angels and Us:

“Here, then, is a reason for the resurrection of the body that saves that dogma from being abhorrent. Divine intervention may be needed to preserve the soul’s existence between death and the Last Judgement, and even to prevent that existence from being a life devoid of activity. But that is an unnatural or, perhaps it should be said, a supernatural condition for the soul to be in. For its immortal life to be thoroughly natural, it needs to be reunited with a body.”

Some Christian philosophers will be displeased with this solution and with much of Adler’s argument. Intellect doesn’t offer a proof for the immortality of the soul because the author thinks, with Duns Scotus and contra Aquinas, that this is an article of faith and therefore beyond the power of reason to demonstrate.

Still, the book does provide grounds for affirming the immateriality of the human intellect, which is a necessary prerequisite for human immortality and a fatal blow to the materialist scheme of things. 
— Mark Brumley

Intellect: Mind Over Matter
By Mortimer J. Adler
New York: Macmillan, 1990
205 pages
ISBN: 002001015X 

Heaven’s Seven Signs


A carpenter who heard that a priest friend needed a sign for his parish’s nativity scene decided to make it as a Christmas present, so he sent the priest a telegram: “Send desired wording and dimensions of sign.”

Unfortunately the carpenter had living with him a married son of the same name who was expecting news from his pregnant wife, who, while visiting her parents back East, had suddenly gone into premature labor. When the priest sent a reply telegram to the carpenter, the son tore it open thinking it was for him.

His father found him an hour later flat on his back in the front hallway, still clutching a telegram which read, “UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN, 8 feet long and 3 feet wide.”

There’s no doubt about it: Signs can be a source of confusion. (“But, Officer, the sign said, ‘Fine for Parking,’ so I did”). Or what about the bear hunter who came to a fork in the path, saw a sign that read “Bear Left,” and went home?) The confusion is of course tragic rather than comic when it concerns those special signs we call the seven sacraments.

Non-Catholic Christians have historically misunderstood Catholic teaching on the sacraments, claiming that the Church holds a “magical” or “manipulative” view of God’s grace. And Catholics themselves, especially in the current catechetical recession, are often no clearer on what the sacraments are and how they operate than their non-Catholic brethren.

If you want to replace confusion with clarity on the issue of the sacraments and haven’t the time or inclination for a more in-depth treatment (such as the excellent 286-page The Sacraments and Their Celebration by Nicholas Halligan, which was reviewed in the September issue of This Rock), then this short but powerful book is for you.

Understanding the Sacraments is just what the publisher’s introduction touts it as, “a popular guide for prayer and study of all seven sacraments, designed for use by individuals and groups.”

The book’s 152 pages encompass 22 bite-sized essays. The first, written by Peter Stravinskas, is on the concept of sacraments in general. Then follow eleven essays by Stravinskas and seven by Henry Dieterich on each of the sacraments in turn. The final three essays (two by James Hitchcock and one by Peter Sayre) delve into our need to recover a sense of the sacred in our liturgical life, related problems in contemporary Catholic consciousness, and the role of sacraments in healing (in the most holistic sense of the word).

Each chapter closes with five questions for group discussion (or individual reflection, with space provided beneath each to record one’s answers, workbook-style.

As in Stravinskas’s The Bible and the Mass, the Christocentric style of the book will communicate the validity of the sacramental view of life to those who perceive sacraments as stumbling blocks getting in the way of Christ crucified for our sins, rather than as a seven-fold stream flowing from his pierced side. “Jesus Christ is the first and greatest sacrament or sign man has ever received,” Stravinskas points out (p. 16).

The common ground Catholics and non-Catholic Christians have in their confession of Christ as the Incarnation of God is the logical starting point for any truly ecumenical dialogue on the sacraments.

If Protestants reflect deeply enough upon the fact that it was God himself who chose to save us, not as a disembodied spirit, but as spirit-become-flesh, invisible- become-visible, heavenly-become-earthly, supernatural-become- natural, they should in principle have no problem with the concept of sacraments, through which God gives himself to us in physical, visible, tangible ways. The sacraments are but extensions of the Incarnation principle, just as the Church which administers them is the extension of Christ, who is the head of the body.

On this and related issues Stravinskas is a veritable pontifex maximus, building bridges of understanding between Catholics and their separated brethren. He affirms every sound instinct and impulse found in Protestantism and shows that it is best served by the Catholic understanding of the faith.

The need to be born again, so stressed by Evangelicals, is heartily affirmed in the Church’s teaching on the regenerative nature and necessity of baptism. The need for heartfelt repentance and holy living is amply provided for in the sacrament of penance. The need for an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus Christ is met in the literal reception of our Lord, on a weekly if not daily basis, in the Eucharist. The need to live in the power of the Spirit is showcased in the sacrament of confirmation.

Though consistently constructive and positive in tone, Stravinskas does not skirt the issue of the frequent liturgical abuses which only serve to deepen the tragic confusion on the sacraments. As in his book on the Mass, the abuse of the institution of extraordinary Eucharistic ministers comes under particular scrutiny.

According to one American Catholic newsweekly, on any given Sunday in the U.S. more Catholics receive communion from the hands of lay people than from priests or deacons, a state of affairs which clearly makes Stravinskas unhappy.

“Over a three year period, I preached in more than 100 parishes at weekend Masses; only seven did not use extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist–and none, to my knowledge, fulfilled the requirements of [the Vatican instruction] Immensae Caritatis. Some places have literally dozens of people so deputed (I know of one parish which has 225 extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist)” (p. 61).

Ultimately the problem, once again, is lack of understanding of our Catholic heritage. Well-written books that communicate this classic heritage in a contemporary idiom, attractive fashion, and a balanced manner are all too few. This is one such book. 
— Gerry Matatics

Understanding the Sacraments: A Guide for Prayer and Study
By Peter J. Stravinskas (with Henry Dieterich)
Ann Arbor: Servant, 1989
152 pages
ISBN: 0892836539

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