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Putting the mind back in nature


Philosophy and consciousness: Galileo and Descartes
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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[Q] Can this approach, both theoretical and as instantiated in devices, ever get you to the issue of how consciousness works, of what consciousness is in a biological sense, or in any sense?

Good. Well, you've asked a question about something that has been considered to be outside the pale of scientific approach for a long, long time. Independent of the movement of behaviorism in the early 20th Century which distorted the subject mightily, the fact is that consciousness was the province of philosophers, wasn't it? Pretty much. Particularly of what we'll call of modern philosophy starting with Descartes. Let me see where I can begin. Let me do it this way. Let me start with Descartes and say how he posed the problem – because even though one doesn't agree with him, it sets the context actually very beautifully; it sets what the problem is. Alfred North Whitehead in his book Science and the Modern World made an interesting statement. He said, 'At the very beginnings of Western science in the 17th Century, two figures removed the mind from nature. The first was Galileo and the second was Descartes.' Now, both of them tried physics, you know, but Galileo was a much superior physicist whereas... and not a philosopher, whereas Descartes had some physics but he was of course... in a way that Galileo was for modern physics, he was the founder of modern philosophy. And so they removed the mind from nature for different reasons.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: Science and the Modern World, Descartes, Alfred North Whitehead, Galileo

Duration: 1 minute, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008