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The place of crisis in science


Science, consciousness and the world
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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[Q] Does the notion of how the brain processes the world and how we acquire knowledge and certainty then run afoul of the sort of everyday necessity of working in the world and of dealing in the scientific community?

Well, those are three different things, aren't they? First of all, working in the world, for sure most people work in what you might call the common sense mode, right? They don't worry about quarks when they go to work. They don't consider the second law of thermodynamics as an axiom of impotence or anything of the sort. And sensibly so. They deal mostly in fact with other human beings, right? Speak about culture and co-evolution. In... in the practice of science, coming back to our issue of style, it does seem to me that style is in some degree field dependent. That if you try to apply this style that you apply say a high-energy physicist to say genetics, your field, you would not really be equipped to get very far. And the physicist might say in return, ‘Neither would you get very far if I used your kind of approach which is by my standards quite sloppy.’ But I believe there isn't the contradiction. I believe that there's something interesting about it, though, which I think I've said before – namely that you proceed from ambiguity to clarity, not the other way around. And if you try to say, ‘Oh no, we'll be clear right from the beginning’, just like mathematics might seem to be, you get into a little bit of trouble. And the trouble has to do with the unknown; the fact that... and that may be worth pursuing; I never thought of it this way. But in Darwinian terms the future environment is unknown, isn't it? And the mutation and the set and ensemble of structures you have selected are a kind of shake against a future which you can't even really predict because it's not even cognitive.

Now, what happened with cognition is you added to that a power of prediction though consciousness of a certain kind. We were talking about music; I'll give you the example. If someone says what's the function of consciousness since... maybe I haven't said this, but it takes maybe up to 400 milliseconds before you formulate a true conscious image or whatever. The... the function of consciousness to me is simply a little bit like this. Supposing you were a musician and you were practicing for a concerto – let's see Beethoven's Third with an orchestra – and you take a particular sequence of notes which you haven't seen before and consciously learn them until they go... become unconscious, procedural memory, and then you rattle them right off; and then you do the same with another phrase, and then you hook the two together again consciously. Now you go into concert; the last thing you want to do is think of your fingers moving up and down, right? But then supposing the conductor lags the beat... oh, boy. You get an alert and say, ‘I'd better do something about this’ – that is what consciousness is about. It's not for the immediacy of moving your fingers at seven hertz per second; it's more the fact of projecting what compensation has to be done if things deviate from expectation.

So it is interesting to think in a Darwinian mode about Darwin's natural selection as being a ruthless but nonetheless most remarkable way of saving value if you will; and, at the same time, think of what happened that evolution made these selectional systems somatic ones like the immune system and the brain, to deal with conditions that could not be predictive during natural selection; for example, it could hardly be that natural selection could define an antibody combining site in detail for a molecule that never existed before, any more than evolution could deal with what happens in cognition when you think up, say, a James Joyce novel. But to me I think it's all of a piece – that... that in effect it has to be said that the physicist precedes the physics; that in effect it doesn't go the other way around; you just can't turn a crank and get new ideas. The way new ideas appear is in some degree mysterious but certainly never super-precise. Now people might argue about that, I'm not sure, but it seems to me there is a cogent picture here, and it's what I call a picture that supports a notion I'll call – for the moment, I've never used it before – lenient epistemology. Namely the way you learn is first blunder and not blunder randomly, use every cue you have, but above all use the human capacity to consciously, in higher-order consciousness, make whole new constructs and then see how they fit. I think Planck was really not very happy with what he did. When you read about it, he really was a bit demure, even though what he did is create an extraordinary revolution.

Now, that... that's another point that I think is worth putting next to lenient epistemology. By the way, I call it lenient because I believe that the classical picture... we talked of Willard Van Orman Quine, who insisted that what you should do is naturalize epistemology, make it part of psychology, and thus not get into these sterile arguments. But even then, he pretty much belonged to the school of the idea of justified true belief – that snow is white quote unquote, it is true if and only if snow is white, and what you do is prove propositional statements. But that's very severe and it seems to me that... that the idea is you want to go much more leniently than that.

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: Max Planck, Charles Darwin, Willard Van Orman Quine

Duration: 5 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008