Is Neuroscience a Collection of Neuroscience Memes?: An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 11

In the 10th Chapter of Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, Kuhn asks the reader to consider a central role for the mind in the scientific process. Kuhn’s key argument in this section of the book is that paradigm shifts correlate with perspective differences in looking at the prevalent paradigm in relation to anomalies. The anomaly is an invite for the scientist to shift perspective. What I find interesting here is that Kuhn has opened up the discussion of the mind and the fundamentals of science. Science is a process by which scientific knowledge is arrived at as well as the body of scientific knowledge itself. Another assumption about science is that it is a way of arriving at an approximation of the truth about the universe we live in.

Scientific findings or data can be both organised and disorganised. However the findings can be organised according to a taxonomic framework which is another important characteristic of science. Another framework is the model. The models can range in sophistication from a collection of a few simple statements to an elaborate mathematical model simulated on a computer. Disorganised findings or data includes esoteric findings in niche areas where insufficient resources including time have not allowed for the systematic organisation of data. Areas of scientific investigation that produce very large datasets are an example of data needing to be organised into knowledge.

From all of this we can deduce that the human mind is capable of approximating the truth about the universe through a scientific process. This approximation has a number of caveats. Scientific knowledge is a function of the human mind. This knowledge is predicated on underlying evidence tested against reason, other lines of evidence and expertise. The knowledge is also predicated on reproducibility. The scientist expects the ability to be in control of the knowledge in that sense that either they can test the model directly or can be satisfied that the underlying chain of assumptions for a model have been systematically tested. This is what Kuhn refers to as normal science.

These properties of science are also properties of the human mind. They constitute a set of beliefs and values about how things should be done and also about establishing a hierarchy of beliefs. These beliefs are described as hypotheses, theorems, facts, speculation and models depending on the underlying evidence as well as the views of the community.

The critic may argue that the human mind is irrelevant in this whole process. Newton stated in his second law of motion that Force = Mass x Acceleration. Knowing that this is the case, it does not matter whether we think it to be true or not. The universe carries on without us. A meteorite will continue to accelerate when it is in the gravitational field of Earth whether we believe it will or not.

A Video About Force

The response to the critic is not to get caught up in arguments about the validity of Newtonian Mechanics in view of General Relativity or Quantum Mechanics but to focus on Newton’s Second Law of Motion itself. Newton did not sit down and write his second law of motion for an impassive mechanistic universe. The proverbial apple dropping from the tree does not care if Newton has formulated the Law that anticipates it accelerating towards the ground. It just drops. Newton wrote his Second Law of Motion for the human mind. Scientific knowledge, scientific truth is a product of the human mind for the human mind. The scientist can say that they have discovered a neutral truth about the universe but they must do so within the parameters afforded to them by the human mind.

The scientific community that is central to Kuhn’s work is similarly constrained by the human mind. Scientific knowledge and scientific revolutions are determined by the actions of a mind or minds. Whenever we talk about science or scientific revolutions we see the footprint of the universe and the ‘mindprint’ of the human mind which tries to understand that universe. Newton’s second law of motion is written. Writing implies a shared understanding of what symbols mean. Those symbols are representations of language. Language is a shared mechanism that enables minds to communicate with each other. Newton’s very act of writing the Second Law of Motion was a statement that it was meant to be seen by the eyes, perceived by the brain and interpreted by the mind. The apple continues to drop.

Kuhn encouraged this vision of science. By shifting our perspective he enables us to share in the perspective shifting that occurs in scientific revolutions. However things have moved on since Kuhn wrote this work. Kuhn encourages us to explore these themes. If we move from one paradigm to another then Kuhn says there is a shifting in perspective. What might this mean about the underlying paradigm? To me it might mean that the paradigm being a function of mind operates within the mind. Dawkins refers to memes as successful ideas that occupy the mind. Memes are the ‘fittest’ ideas adapting to the environment of the mind. A paradigm is an organised collection of ‘science memes’.

Science memes must not just be adapted to the mind but must also be adapted to the Universe. Their task is altogether more complicated as like the genome itself they must be organised into a working whole. In this case, it does not matter if individual science memes (hypotheses and assumptions) are not well adapted. If the other science memes in the collection are well adapted then the model itself can be well adapted both to the mind and the Universe. When discussing collections of memes like this we can think of the body of Psychoanalytic Theory, Psychopharmacological Theories (e.g Serotonin and Mood) and the Standard Model of Physics. Indeed using this latter model perhaps we can see mathematics as a pure language of the mind that when tested against the Universe becomes Physics or related fields.

When the pure language of the mind that is language is tested against the Universe we run into more difficulties. This is because language is better adapted to the mind than mathematics. These memes can be disseminated more quickly and adapt more rapidly giving the testing against the Universe less time to catch up. When a Neuroscience finding emerges about the human mind discussion may occur rapidly with varying outcomes for these discussions. When the CERN accelerator produces a finding which may support the standard model the public discourse is extremely limited because the model is couched in complex mathematical terms.

Finally can anthropology tell us something about Neuroscience? I have written elsewhere about my observations about Lemurs. In this video I see some similarities with scientists as the Lemurs investigate the camera. By virtue of their divergent digits they have a degree of flexibility in their ability to manipulate the environment compared to cats and dogs from which they diverged approximately 25 million years previously. Evolution is about adaptation to the environment. The environment is part of the universe.

It doesn’t seem too unreasonable to suppose that adaptation to the environment means that the organism is better able to anticipate the future. This in turn implies an ‘understanding’ of the environment and therefore the Universe. This ‘understanding’ doesn’t need to be the mindful understanding that we possess but instead is a series of hardwired responses to the environment encoded in chemical processes. These responses mean that the organism is better able to obtain nutrients or evade predators. Increasing complexity may have resulted in us being able to communicate this understanding to each other in a flexible way that we call science.

Returning to the Lemur. The Lemur is able to pick up and push objects easily and in so doing is able to test new hypotheses about the environment that Cats and Dogs are less able to. How heavy is the object? How stable is the object? The Lemur’s body is an instrument for exploring the environment and the Lemur’s brain uses this tool to explore. Therefore the Lemur’s brain adapts to the tool it has at its disposal. Maybe the science of the Lemur brain has well developed concepts of weight and stability which have evolved directly from the divergent digits. Maybe Dolphins have an elegant and intuitive paradigm of fluid dynamics that is a function of adaptation to the environment and is hard and softwired into their brains and minds. Maybe that is what Dolphins communicate with each other.

Understanding the Lemur’s digits and their relation to understanding the environment will give us insights into our evolutionary journey and help us to understand how our science came about.

Appendix 1 – Review of Chapter 10 of ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ on this Site

Chapter 10 of Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ is titled ‘Revolutions as Changes of World View’ and is the lengthiest of the chapters. Kuhn continues his central argument from previous chapters that scientific revolutions involve a change in perspectives and he writes that the scientist must

learn to see a new Gestalt

Indeed after a revolution the scientist must learn to ‘see a new world’ and the student of science is trained to see the world in this way. There are significant differences between these perspectives which are ‘incommensurable’. Kuhn draws a parallel with an experiment in which subjects were required to wear inverting prisms and learnt to adapt to this new visual world – there is a transformation in their perception. He goes further and suggests that perception of scientific paradigms and visual perception share a similar underlying physiology.  A similar analogy is drawn with the previously mentioned experiment involving anomalous cards presented as part of a sequence. Kuhn suggests that the evidence for these changes in perspective should be sought in behaviours (although it is also possible to examine the perceptual constructs themselves rather than behavioural proxies).

Kuhn questions the assumptions that the perception follows directly from the sensory observations as outlined in the highly influential philosophy of Descartes. He emphasises the importance of an understanding of the mind in understanding science and asserts that there is an absence of a language of perception. Kuhn gives examples to support his argument including the identification of atomic elements which resulted from a different perspective rather than a focus on experimentation alone. Indeed he describes John Dalton who formulated the atomic theory as a meteorologist rather than a chemist who approached some of the questions posed by chemists by using a different paradigm. Along the way he replaced the affinity theory which had predominated up until that time. In this example it becomes clear that the paradigm change involved a change in culture in which common assumptions were abandoned, where debate between highly regarded proponents of the different perspectives  illuminated the core issues in the paradigm change and in which a significant proportion of the scientific community would need to be persuaded of the advantages of the new paradigm.

This chapter raises many questions and further defines the nature of the paradigm changes Kuhn refers to throughout.

Related Resources on the TAWOP Site

A Review of the Structure of Scientific Revolutions

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 1

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 2

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 3

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 4

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 5

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 6

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 7 – A Discussion of the Anomaly and Beyond

Do We Need A Crisis in Science For A Revolution to Occur? – An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 8

What is the Effect of a Scientific Crisis in Neuroscience? An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 9

Has Neuroscience Been Undergoing a Limited Political Revolution Rather Than A Scientific Revolution? An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 10

Index: There are indices for the TAWOP site here and here Twitter: You can follow ‘The Amazing World of Psychiatry’ Twitter by clicking on this link. Podcast: You can listen to this post on Odiogo by clicking on this link (there may be a small delay between publishing of the blog article and the availability of the podcast). It is available for a limited period. TAWOP Channel: You can follow the TAWOP Channel on YouTube by clicking on this link. Responses: If you have any comments, you can leave them below or alternatively e-mail Disclaimer: The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s