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

James Schwaber schwaber at mail.dbi.tju.edu
Sat Aug 23 17:01:23 CEST 2008

Hi Jim -

Good points, interesting and thoughtful, and I applaud your impulse to 
expose the students to the issues in this discussion. Hopefully it will 
stimulate them to exceed us on all this, rather than thinking 'the 
answers are all in'.

I agree the data is compelling the molecular level but not submolecular 
have to be fundamental.

Even if the brain is selected for (apparently very actively ongoing into 
the present) the mind is something else, and I will post something on 
this soon.

I also wonder about the distinction that evolution influenced the 
subject of neuroscience but not the physical world. Doesn't it look now 
like the universe is evolving? Consider the processes extending over the 
eons necessary to produce the physical world as we find it and as it 
supports life (and minds!). These are not finished either, the universe 
is not steady state but rapidly changing - and just like us going we 
know not where or why - but operating under evolutionary pressures. 
Which apparently may equally tie up efforts to link the physical world 
to the bi-directional infinite.

When will we do this over beers - need more bandwidth! - Jim

james bower wrote:
> Jim,
> 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.
> Jim
> 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
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