Christendom College

Neuroscientist Relies Heavily on his Philosophical Education

December 14, 2010

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“Scientific academia is a pretty atheistic world,” Christendom College Alumnus Phil O’Herron says. “Some people have been really shocked that a seemingly normal person can believe in such a silly thing as God.”

A graduate of the class of 2000, O’Herron is a post-doctoral research fellow in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. He became interested in how man can know the world from studying philosophy at Christendom. From there, he decided that he wanted to know more about the brain and went on to get his PhD in neuroscience from George Mason University.

O’Herron says that Christendom has strengthened him in his faith, which he considers important to have in any walk of life, but especially in his. In O’Herron’s field, atheistic materialists surround him.

“Without the solid education I received from Christendom, it might be hard to persevere,” he says. “But having learned how to defend the Faith, why the Church teaches what she does, and the philosophical and theological errors that often underlie arguments against God’s existence or the Church, I find that I actually enjoy the opportunity to talk with people about it.”

In graduate school, O’Herron joined the Consciousness Club, a group of neuroscience students and faculty who were interested in philosophical questions about the mind and free will. At the meetings of this club, O’Herron discovered that, aside from all the participants being materialists, there were fundamental aspects of philosophy that were missing.

“They didn’t have an understanding of different types of causality, basic ontology, such as the different ways of being and the difference between essence and existence, and even just a basic sense of what levels of explanation are valid,” O’Herron says. “Someone, without the background that Christendom gives, might be overwhelmed by the materialist arguments. However, having studied philosophy at Christendom, I had heard many of these arguments before and had studied what was wrong with them. It ended up being a huge help to me.”

O’Herron believes that a liberal arts degree is more desirable than a specialized degree because it makes one a broadly educated and well-rounded person.

“This may seem strange coming from a guy in a scientific field because there is so much technical specialty that you need,” O’Herron says. “While I did not pick up the background information I need to do my day-to-day work at Christendom, I think I picked up something that is a lot harder to get in any other way: learning how to think critically through problems and process arguments.”

He explains that a big part of science is being able to see the big picture surrounding an experimental result. A scientist has to fully process all the assumptions that go into a result and then be able to interpret the finding in light of what else is known. The scientist then needs to decide what would be the next best thing to test.

“Without these abilities, technical expertise will not get you very far,” O’Herron says. “I think in studying philosophy and logic at Christendom, I had a lot of practice at analyzing arguments to see if conclusions were justified and, if not, what was missing.”

When asked what he misses most about Christendom, O’Herron responds with a smile, “I think the right question is: what don’t I miss about Christendom?”