Neurobiologist has the soul of a philosopher

By Aline McKenzie / Feb. 12-18, 2011

For a neurologist who works on the cutting edge of his field, Dr. Juan Pascual spends a great deal of time in the past.

Dr. Pascual, assistant professor of neurology and neurotherapeutics, pediatrics and physiology, is also an internationally recognized amateur philosopher, currently translating from Latin into Spanish the Theological-Political Treatise by Baruch Spinoza, a mid-17th-century philosopher who is regarded as the founder of the Radical Enlightenment.

Dr. Juan Pascual (second from left) and his lab staff

“He was the ultimate materialist,” Dr. Pascual said. “He concluded that miracles are to be doubted, because nature shouldn’t be making exceptions to its rules.”

The Treatise has been translated only a few times; it’s an especially difficult task because Spinoza learned Latin as an adult. “His Latin is very poor,” Dr. Pascual said. “He has bad grammar and uses very long sentences.”

Dr. Pascual’s own interest is in the “mind-body” dualism that dates from antiquity. More recently, René Descartes revived the debate when he argued in the mid-1600s that the human body, being physical, follows physical laws, while the non-physical mind — the soul — does not.

Dr. Pascual, who leads the pediatric and adult rare brain diseases clinic and laboratory, disagrees. Philosophy and science, he said, have shown not that the mind and the brain are one and the same, but rather that mind and body (the entire sentient body) are inseparable and, perhaps, indistinguishable.

“Neuroscience still lags behind the philosophy of mind,” he said. “We have no idea where to look in the brain to find what is most relevant to the mind. Is it in a network of synchronized cells? Is it in individual cells? We don’t know.”

But he said that even if science were to fully unveil the workings of the brain and the mind, humans would still need philosophy to discuss concepts such as language, knowledge and ethics.

Dr. Pascual’s philosophical work is well-recognized. He recently was awarded the Distinguished Medal and elected as an Honor Member by the alumni association of the University of Málaga in his native Spain. In October, he was elected to the European Academy of Arts, Sciences and Letters.

His interests have led him to read Immanuel Kant in the original German, armed with a huge dictionary.

Dr. Pascual is also a life member of the Royal Academy of Spain, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Telmo and the North American Academy of the Spanish Language, associations dedicated to the maintenance of the official Spanish dictionary, cultivation of aesthetics and promotion of the arts.

His family background prepared him for these wide-ranging interests. Dr. Pascual’s father is a professor of medieval philosophy, and his mother is a professor of literature and a leading expert on the latest Nobel laureate in the field, Mario Vargas Llosa.

“I always hesitated whether to study philosophy or medicine — a serious indecision that I still entertain today,” Dr. Pascual said. “There are minimal career prospects in philosophy. Our society doesn’t have much respect for philosophers.”

He finally realized: “I can do philosophy at home; all I need is my books. For science, you need all this structure,” he said, indicating his North Campus laboratory surroundings. “One can be an amateur philosopher. I don’t know how a person can be an amateur neurobiologist.”