[Comp-neuro] Re: (3) A Matter of Religion

james bower bower at uthscsa.edu
Fri Aug 22 00:06:43 CEST 2008


I would like to venture that evolution and selection makes the issue a  
bit different for biology and neuroscience than for the physical world  
as a whole.  In other words, unlike (we assume) the physical world of  
particles and forces (on which, of course, biology is based),  
selection of traits adds an additional twist to the usual reductionist  
arguments.  In other words, selection has "worked" to organize brain's  
to perform a particular function - as neurobiologists, I would suggest  
that our ultimate objective is to understand the function in the  
structure that selection "put there"  (thus my own focus on that  
structure first). This also means that arguments in other fields  
related to reductionist to abserdum may not apply to biology -  as  
selection, in some sense "brackets" our inquiry.  Thus, 'what level is  
too fine' comes down in my view to the question 'what is the lowest  
level that the process of natural selection "sculpts" component  
parts.  Molecules for sure -- submolecular, it can't.  At the other  
end, how can selection possibly work on ideas of  'mind' explicitly  
assumed to have no physical manifestation?  So, unlike physical  
science - we have no mandate to link across all levels of scale from  
the infinite in one direction, to the infinite in the other direction.  
For that reason,  Godel's proof, which had a profound effect on  
Hilbertian axiomatic "link it all together consistently' descriptions   
may not apply given the proofs explicit dependence on infinites.

Never-the-less, my original intention in starting this back and forth,  
was to demonstrate to students in Brazil that there are many  
fundamental issues of 'fact' and 'process', not often discussed, but  
never-the-less far from agreed to surrounding computational  
neuroscience.  Whether fact, faith or the likely in between, I  
'believe' this is useful for students to know, and for us to ponder  
and perhaps attempt to fix.

As you know, I also don't believe in 'one for all and all for one'.   
The history of science says it ain't so.


On Aug 21, 2008, at 3:21 PM, James Schwaber wrote:

> (3) A Matter of Religion
> I am really struck by the forceful and repeated confessions of faith  
> in this thread: we are materialists with every fiber of our body, we  
> are certain the material world is well understood and the brain is  
> part of it, reductionistic accounts are in principle complete,  
> determinism makes freewill an illusion, and so on. My experience is  
> that this faith is universal among us neuroscientists, and to a  
> somewhat lesser extent biologists in general. We want to believe we  
> are real scientists, just like physicists, and will prove it by  
> mechanistic reduction of behavior and brain to physical-chemical  
> levels.
> It is my interesting experience that this faith is often not shared  
> by physical scientists and philosophers of science - that this kind  
> of hard reductionism/determinism may be passé, not considered a  
> workable approach.  That is, a bottom-up, seamlessly mechanistic- 
> deterministic account of all of nature is typically not considered a  
> reasonable goal of science, e.g. given the limits we have hit in  
> 20th century physics. In this context, a local account of some  
> mental or behavioral or neuronal function in its own terms would be  
> a success to the extent it was predictive-useful, but never taken as  
> complete or eternally true.
> Obviously this is a matter of faith, of 'religion'. I wonder if the  
> faith of neuroscientists is inhibitory to how we consider how  
> brain's work?


Dr. James M. Bower Ph.D.

Professor of Computational Neuroscience

Research Imaging Center
University of Texas Health Science Center -
-  San Antonio
8403 Floyd Curl Drive
San Antonio Texas  78284-6240

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Fax: 210 567-8152
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