Noam Chomsky – The biolinguistic turn lecture notes – part six


The American Association for Advancement of Science Journal, devoted a year ago an issue to Neuroscience. The summery article, which was coauthored by Eric Richard Kandel Nobel Laureate, was subtitled “Breaking down scientific barriers to the study of brain and mind”. The article covers very interesting ground but ends up with the conclusion that the neuroscience of higher cognitive processes is only begining. Its surely beginning from a higher plane than was constructed by Descartes who was in many ways the founder of modern Neuroscience. But non the less it is still the beginning. Fundamental questions remain beyond even dreams of resolutions. That includes those that where traditionally considered at the heart of the theory of mind. Such as for example, choosing some action, or even thinking about doing so. There has been very valuabel work about narrower questions, f.e. how an organism executes a plan for integrative motor action – how a cockroach walks or how a person reaches for a cup of the table.

But no one even raises the question of why the person or the cockroach executes one plan rather than some other one. That question is raised for the very simplest organisms, single cells organisms. In fact the same is true even for visual perception which is often considered a passive process. A couple of years ago a few cognitive neuroscientists, one a college of mine, published a review of research on a problem that was posed in 1850 by Humhold “even without moving our eyes we can focus our attention on different objects at will resulting in very different perceptual experiences of the same visual field”.

There is been interesting work on that but the phrase “at will” points to an era thats beyond serious empirical inquiery. It remains as much of a mystery as it was for Newton at the end of his life when he was still seeking what he called a “settle spirit that lies hidden in all bodies and that might without absurdity account for their properties of attraction and repulsion, the nature and effects of light, sensation and the way members of animal bodies move at the command of the will.” These where all comparable mysteries for newton perhaps even beyond our understanding he thought. Like the princibles of motion and the classical problems of the theory of mind at least since Descartes who incidentally also regarded them as possibly beyond human understanding.

Even if we restrict ourselfs to the study of mechanisms the gaps are quiet substantial. One of the leading Neuroscientists Randy Gallistel pointed out recently that “we clearly do not understand how the nervoussystem computes or even the foundation of its ability to compute even for the small set of arithmetic and logical operations that are fundamental to any computation”. He happens to be talking about insects but it obviously extends beyond. In another domain one of the founders of contemporary cognitive Neuroscience, Hans Lukas Teuber.

He introduced a n important review on perception and neuropysiology by writting “it may seem strange to begin with the claim that there is no adquate definition of perception and to end with the admission that we lack a neurophysiological theory”. Althou this was the most that could be said. Its true that that was 40 years ago and there where dramatic discovery right at the time that he was writting and since. But i suspect that Teuber would have expressed much the same judgment today. Teuber also outline the standard way to move towards adressing the problem of unification. He explains that his purpose in reviewing the perceputal phenomena and offering a speculative psychological account of them was because this may suggest direction in which the search for neural basis of perception should proceed. Namely by clarifying the assumption that those neurol basis must satisfy. Thats a classic approach along with the restriction of the scientific enterprise to more modest goals namely intelligibility of theory rather then of the world.

Another consequence of the demolition of the hopes of the Galilean Revolution for mechanical conception of the world, was recognition that scientific inquiry is going to have to be local in his expectations. Overarching unification may take place but perhaps over a long term and in ways that can’t be anticipated. The 18th century english chemist Joseph Black set the tone for subsequent scientific work by recommending that chemical affinity be received as a first princible which we cannot explain anymore than Newton could explain Gravitation but let us defer acounting for the laws for affinity until we have established such a body of doctrine as Newton has established concerning the Laws of gravitation. And chemistry in fact preceeded along this course separating itself increasingly from physics. Physics followed Newtons admination that Nature will be conformable to herself and very simple observing a few general principles of attraction and repulsion that relate the elementary particles of which all matter is constituted. More or less in a way different buildings can be constructed from the same bricks.

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