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De Haan Blends Philosophy, Neuroscience in Cambridge Post-Doc

Daniel De HaanDoctoral candidate Daniel De Haan will apply the philosophical study of the human person to cognitive neuroscience, especially Alzheimer’s research, as part of a prestigious post-doctoral position beginning in the fall. He will study philosophy, theology and neuroscience at the School of Divinity at the University of Cambridge in England.

De Haan is pursuing a joint-doctoral degree from the University of St. Thomas Center for Thomistic Studies and the De Wulf-Mansion Centre for Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy within the Institute of Philosophy of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, where he currently resides. He will defend his doctoral dissertation with the two universities in Houston in August.

De Haan said his philosophical studies have alternated between a fascination with the great philosophical minds of the past and the ways these historical insights illuminate the challenging philosophical questions that confront us today.

“When we confront this question today, ‘What is the human person?’ we cannot ignore the ongoing developments being made in cognitive neuroscience.”

Cambridge Project De-Segregates Philosophy, Theology and Science

De Haan will work under Professor Sarah Coakley at Cambridge University, who will direct three postdoctoral fellows in cosmology, evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience.

For De Haan, the post-doc position working on philosophical anthropology—the study of metaphysics, consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view and interpersonal relationships—along with cognitive neuroscience, is a dream come true.

“Over the last few years I have come to realize that my intellectual vocation was leading me more and more in the direction of philosophical and theological anthropology, and this meant I needed to find a way to study cognitive neuroscience and understand it on its own terms,” De Haan said.

De Haan said in the past century the academic world has moved toward overspecialization in philosophy, theology, and especially in the sciences, making it difficult for philosophers and theologians to acquire knowledge of scientific practices and discoveries. Conversely, scientists have trouble distinguishing between philosophical, theological and scientific questions.

De Haan will have an office in the Translational Cognitive Neuroscience Lab and will observe and participate in the everyday work being done on recognition and memory in this lab, especially as related to wider research projects at Cambridge working on Alzheimer’s disease.

“The idea here is to get me up to speed with contemporary research in cognitive neuroscience and to provide me three years of formation working in a cutting-edge research laboratory,” De Haan said. “I shall also be studying with a number of Cambridge professors working on philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception.”

Houston, Houser are ‘Home Base’ to Joint Doctoral Degree

While De Haan’s pursuit of a joint degree may seem ambitious, he said it is a more common practice in Europe.  Most doctoral programs in the United States require many years of coursework and exams prior to working on a doctoral dissertation; however, in Europe students consider doctoral studies similar to an independent research project. Sometimes a doctoral student can improve his research by studying under multiple specialists at different universities.

With two dissertation supervisors, Dr. Rollen Edward Houser at UST and Dr. Andrea Robiglio at KU Leuven, the doctoral examination committee is comprised of members from both universities. The defense will take place in Houston, because Houser is the principal supervisor of De Haan’s dissertation.

Houser said the post-doctoral position is a great accomplishment. De Haan is starting his career at one of the best educational institutions in the world.

“He was successful because he is one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ students that every teacher feels extremely privileged to have in one’s teaching career,” said Houser, the Professor Bishop Nold Chair in Graduate Philosophy.

De Haan worked with Houser to study the Muslim philosopher Avicenna from the 10th-11th centuries and his influence on the thought of Thomas Aquinas. De Haan said his dissertation, “Necessary Existence and the Doctrine of Being in Avicenna’s ‘Metaphysics of the Healing,’” is an abstract thesis that explains Avicenna’s understanding of being, thing, one, the necessary and how his philosophical exploration of these concepts ultimately leads to a metaphysical knowledge of God as the Necessary Existence in Itself.

Meaning of Life and God Core for De Haan at Center for Thomistic Studies

De Haan, a convert to Catholicism during his first year in Houston, said the Center for Thomistic Studies provided him with his first Catholic home, for which he is eternally grateful.

He said while teaching undergraduate philosophy courses during the last three years at UST, he had some outstanding students, who taught him a lot about being a professor.

“If I ever become a good teacher, my students from UST will deserve a lot of the credit,” he said. “I still pray for these students as it is the most I can do for such young minds to whom I owe so much. I hope that they were able to glean at least a few tips from me about the meaning of existence, life and God.”

By Brenda Cooper

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