The Limits of Science?

This week’s conversation is about the limits of science – neuroscience in particular. Where can neuroscience go? What can it tell us about life? How might it transform the world? And, what are some questions that science cannot answer? What questions is science even unable to ask? Gregory Guitchounts and Steve Ramirez discuss:

SR:  Alrighty. So my big prediction of where neuroscience can and can’t go is built off what we know about the brain today — namely, that mind is as brain does. That is, if it’s a “brain state” this is the same thing as a “mind” or “psychological state” and that as long as it falls under this category, neuroscience can explain all the processes that occur in between our ears, including ephemeral once-the-province-of-philosophy topics like consciousness.

GG:  Neuroscience can look at what goes on between your ears, but I don’t think it can truly capture what it’s like to be you. In other words, neuroscience looks at your brain from the third perspective, which can’t delve into the first perspective.

SR:  Absolutely true — and until robotics/artificial intelligence catches up, I don’t think we’ll know the answer to that question just yet. I am, though, taking an experimenter’s point of view by claiming that things like consciousness can be explained as long as they can be physically observed or manipulated. The first is a bit easier — you just need eyes. The second happens daily with gain-of-function and loss-of-function experiments, which are just science-y ways of asking can you break it and can you put it back together. If you can, you sort of understand it. Something like going “under” and waking back up from anesthesia does just this to consciousness and it’s explainable completely in physical terms. That to me is a remarkable achievement in neuroscience, though your point remains an unsettled question for sure

GG:  Indeed. How about something like the bliss one experiences when listening to Beethoven or Jay-Z? Or the feeling one gets when looking at a Dali masterpiece? Or eating a Chipotle burrito? Neuroscience can explain why those things are enjoyable, but what can it say about the experience itself?

SR:  Those, I think, neuroscience is just recently fleshing out, but two huge limitations come to mind: one is that brain imaging technology in humans is still crude and can “only” peak at brain activity sprinkled across big brain regions, and second is that the biochemistry (therefore) is still hugely lacking if one wants to explain those experiences. They are still technical limitations though, and not limitations in principle, but I still reserve a full commitment to that view because navigating through the brain’s grooves and gyri reveals something surprisingly insightful at almost every corner, and that’s what I hope is just healthy skepticism.

But I do think the huge advances made in fields like psychiatry point to one profound point: broken brain pieces give rise to broken thoughts, and pharmaceuticals try to piece these pieces back together. It’s on that basis — that neuroscience can have a reasonably firm hold over things like mental states — that I’d predict for things like consciouus experience to one day be dissected as well, but admittedly we’re not close to that possibility.

I’m curious: let’s say one day somebody could explain all the biochemical pathways and transmitters and so on involved in your experience of eating deep-fried buffalo wings — would anything be left out?

GG:  Yes! because neuroscience has already made the most important claim: that everything to one’s mind is physical, in the brain. The alternative (that you got [a] soul) is a ridiculous notion these days. Now, given that we have good reasons to think that your experience is 100% a product of physical events, what more can neuroscience say on the subject? It may tell us how that experience arises, but the details won’t be philosophically important. So, what’s lost when we have a description of the biochemical pathways of the brain-on-buffalo-wings is the feeling that one gets when eating bufflao wings…. Neuroscience can’t reproduce that.

SR:  It can’t yet, but that feeling itself, too, is a hodgepodge of interacting brain regions that begs for explanation, but reproducing that… now that’s stuff that perhaps science fiction writers like Asimov are better equipped to predict, because as of now his guess is as good as ours.

GG:  Indeed. Richard Dawkins has a nice chapter about the argument that there are domains of the universe (and life) where science can’t go (usually called the NOMA – Non-Overlapping Magisteria – stance). Of course Dawkins is fundamentally against the notion that science has limits, but he does admit that in the question of consciousness (i.e. the experience that you want Asimov’s descendants to explain) is actually one of those as of now untouchable domains…

SR:  Now there’s a point of controversy — can science step into the realm of faith-based religion and expel that notion (Neil Tyson puts it as “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance”) or are there truly non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA, one being science and the other religion) that ask questions that the other simply cannot answer?

GG:  While the gee oh dee may be a valid scientific hypothesis, things are not looking good for it (i.e. all evidence is AGAINST). I do think that valid NOMA may be science and art (rather, the enjoyment of art). What exactly does science accomplish by telling me why I like Beethoven?

Another NOMA is science and the determination of moral values. Ain’t no way that science can tell me what’s important in life.

SR:  Indeed — it would by no means by a replacement of your enjoyment of Beethoven since that’s a function that art can accomplish with a few notes and brushstrokes, which is why it rightfully is its own discipline.

It’s interesting you mention morals — so a recent study pointed out that, worldwide, as a woman’s education level increases, the odds of her children dying (and her having “too many” children that she cannot support) decrease immensely. To me, that’s science’s way of saying that we ought to educate women because it optimizes some of the measures we hold near and dear (lifespan, quality of life, avoiding infant deaths) whereas the alternative (oppressing women) fails to do that.

GG:  Surely, but you’d need to tell me how science shows that we need to hold those measures near and dear. Why not other values? Like, “have as many children as inhumanly possible!”?

SR:  The one thing that needs to be granted is that some values are preferable over others, such as increasing longevity of life as opposed to dying young, and if we can accept that some values bring us closer to some state of optimal well-being compared to others, then we have a science of morality. But, and many still take aim at this (with good support too), actually granting that very point might be too big of a philosophical give-me to swallow at face value — and that’s the modern rub that science and morality have yet to snuff out.

GG:  I’d put it this way: once we decide on a set of values, science can help us realize them. But it is an important point that science can’t actually tell you what to care about; once you start asking harder questions (for example, is it better to live a short but happy life than a long and disease-ridden one?), it becomes clear that science can only show you the way once you know where you’d like to go.

SR:  There are, though, a lot of questions that have a scientific answer but are difficult or next to impossible to answer. One is, how many times will the hearts of everyone on Mass. Ave beat in the next minute? This has a definitive answer, but carrying out that experiment is the kind of stuff only a PI would make a grad student do (kidding) — it’s impractical and practically impossible. Still, this doesn’t make cardiology a futile science. I agree that determining values isn’t a clean-cut formula, but I’m not so sure that this makes science ill-prepared to provide a moral framework.

GG:  So you’re saying that what we should care about is a scientific question?

SR:  To be honest, I think I’m just hesitant to set a speed limit or roadblock on what science can uncover because throughout history seemingly intractable problems just took the right set of tools and minds. And I think I’d only go as far as to say that science can help inform what we should care about but by no means decide it, in the same way that someone studying pulmonology can tell us that smoking is bad for you without actually forcing our hand away from the celebratory Cuban cigar.

Not to digress too much, but I have to ask: from what I remember you have extensive training in classical music — do you see any strides in the neuroscience of music that particularly tickle your G sharp?

GG:  Intriguing. Not to sound ignorant, but no. Neuroscience has had a lot to say recently about differences between musicians’ and non-musicians’ brains, and the plasticity involved in practicing a musical instrument. But related to our discussion, I haven’t seen anything interesting. “Interesting” would have to be a scientific explanation why Mozart is a better composer than Salieri. I’m not sure if that’s possible.

SR:  I agree, and this goes back to what I mentioned before about technological limitations.  Neuroscience on humans can compare brains but isolating the reasons behind why I favor one composer or the other, that’s an open question that I hope science as a whole begins to acknowledge as legitimate with the potential of being profound.

GG:  No, I don’t mean why you prefer one over the other. I mean why one is better than the other (which is a professional opinion, a.k.a. fact).

SR:  Oh! I see what you mean. How you begin to quantify what makes one composer better than another involves breaking down their career as a series of measures (most records sold, influence on current and subsequent culture, etc) but I agree with you that doing that experiment borders the edge of impossible very quickly because filtering out subjectivity seems to remove an integral part of what makes some art better than others.

I have one quick question we can end on: most of the readers of this blog might have a science background of some sort, but relaying this information to the other 6.99 billion people of the world involves having an even greater sensitivity to their states of minds about how science works. What would be your take-home message to someone interested in what neuroscience has to say about how their brains work?

GG:  My message would be to think of the mind as a machine of sorts. There is no reason to think of ghosts in the machine or souls inhabiting it, which has been the traditional view for millennia.

SR:  Agreed, and it’s one hell of a machine worth figuring out, since in turn you figure yourself out — that’s kinda neat. It also makes your head hurt if you think about it for more than 2 seconds.



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