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The limits of science


Neuroscience and philosophy
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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[Q] What should be the ultimate relationship between neuroscience and philosophy?

Well, let the facts not be ignored by philosophers – that would be the chief thing that... and of course there's always room for interpretation but when we get more and more facts about the brain, you will not any longer... despite the great... for instance, British empiricists and Immanuel Kant himself, you will find that a lot of the things they said were postulated on the basis of no knowledge direct whatsoever, so the very last thing you'd expect is that they can flourish and just make up things in the face of a set of facts that say it won't go; this is the way it really works.

Now, when you get to things like consciousness of course, they will always feel a way out because they will make this comment that I mentioned before – that you really haven't explained how neurons give rise to feelings. I think a good example, to bring it together, is the case of Molineux. Molineux is a friend of John Locke, the great English empiricist, and he posed the question to John Locke; he said... and this is a good story because there's actually a modern equivalent. He said, 'Supposing a person had congenital cataracts and was blind but he had hearing and touch, so he had a sense of space from hearing and touch. Now, supposing you could remove his cataracts...' Which they couldn't do in those days the same way we can today. 'Suppose we removed his cataracts – would he see visual space?' And... and Locke, I believe, answered, you know, with reasonable modesty, that he didn't really know but he suspected he couldn't – not right away, not really. Well, there are cases now where in fact that's been done. In fact, Oliver Sacks has written about this. When you take away the cataracts the first thing that people see is just a scattering, a pitch of color and shapes and no integration at all, and then gradually they get from haptic space, the touch and the hearing, to this visual space and they begin to integrate objects as a result of motion, vision and everything, but it's not necessarily lacking in pain, and some people never do it and plead to be made blind again.

So that's sort of a beautiful example of how... look, in Locke's case he was pretty smart, he didn't overdo it, but there could be cases where people... and I believe there are in continental philosophy amongst the existentialists and... and phenomenology, such excesses as to go beyond any credence. And so Peter Medawar, the immunologist, once said, 'Why do you... Gerry, why do you even discuss the brain?' And I knew my customer, so I said... he said, 'It's a perfect waste of time.' And I said, 'Peter, I'll tell you what,' and I knew this would appeal to him, 'when we find out more about the brain, at least we'll get rid of a lot of lousy ideas.' And he said, 'Okay.'

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: Immanuel Kant, William Molineux, John Locke, Oliver Sacks, Peter Medawar

Duration: 3 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008