Professor B - ,
Thanks for your wonderful reply.
No I did not think you were implying theoretical neuroscience was actually doomed. Indeed as "doomed" would be a pretty dreadful way to think about the subject that I think is one of the most important aspects of studying neuroscience. None the less considering the advance of Computational Neuroscience in relation to the advances of Theoretical Physics, and also as I suggested in class as in relation to Theoretical Economics is an interesting way to frame the study. I hope that my point was not too distracting to your lecture on Thursday, but I am always very intrigued by the philosophical framework that scientific fields occupy and what might be called the ideological framework within which scientific investigators and theoreticians see themselves as working.
It was from a discussion of theoretical physics that Thomas Kuhn derived the notion of 'paradigms' in the evolution of scientific ideas. The basic idea is that science does not advance along a steady path towards greater knowledge but rather moves in a stepwise fashion. Real advances occur as discrete leaps and bounds, they form discontinuities in our working knowledge of a subject.
I believe that the explanation of why scientific thought moves through paradigms includes the radical genius of thinkers like Newton Maxwell and Einstein but also includes sociological principles
concerning the collective perception of the scientific society. In a way that is often not apparent to the individual researcher, the mode of inquiry - the questions that an investigator asks as well as the means and methods by which he or she goes about asking them - is the product of social relationships and societal structures.
It is by understanding the relationships between scientists, the interactions between scientific theory and scientific practice and also the way that scientists perceive their own inspirations and advances that we can really understand the sporadic nature of scientific advance. Thus understanding why the early 20th century saw such terrific success in physics and the late 20th century saw an impasse in the efforts to unify the field involves asking questions about the goals and aspirations of the physicists of each epoch.
In your lecture you correctly suggested that there are good reasons behind the intimate connections between the field of theoretical neuroscience and theoretical physics. The most obvious reason that the fields are connected is that so many brilliant physicist have made important contributions to theoretical neuroscience. These include the men you discussed below and also Leon Cooper who won a Nobel in physics before moving to Neuroscience at Brown. A second reason for the connection is that the mathematical tools developed in physics are also applicable to the study of neuroscience. The similarity of the math is itself an explanation for why a good physicist makes a good theoretical neuroscientist. If we compair the history of neuroscience with the history of physics, we are in the 21st century occupying the position in neuroscience that the ancient Greek natural philosophers occupied in physics. Seen in this light, the relationship of theoretical neuroscience to physics is like that of a big brother and reason for tremendous optimism.
My point is that there are other implications of the connection between physics and neuroscience. A first is that the kind of impasse that physics has encountered in recent years could also occur in theoretical neuroscience even though the field is currently advancing at a remarkable pace. Only in this limited sense might we say that neuroscience is doomed: it is 'doomed' to conform to the same stepwise evolution - leaps ahead followed by years of crawling at a snails speed.
A second implication can be seen by comparing the position of neuroscience in relation to physics with the position of economics in relation to physics. Just as the flow of scientists and mathematical methods makes neuroscientists see their field as physics little brother, economists have long tried to think of their field as emulating the study of physics. Appeals to physics can been seen in the works of economists throughout the history of the study. Adam Smith thought of himself as replicating Newton's Principia when he wrote The Wealth of Nations. Ricardo though of himself as a Natural Philosopher turned political economist. All of these classical liberal thinkers appealed to notions of gravitation in their discussion of economic equilibriums. Marx often used the language of chemistry and physics to describe the workings of the capitalist economy. Finally Keynes framed his famous The General Theory by comparing his work to Einstein's paper of the same title.
Similarly modern economists continue to try to think about their study by transferring the
mathematics developed in physics over to their study of economics. This kind of effort is frequently very profitable, but there is also an important way in which it affects the way that economists see themselves as working and the way that they conceptualize the market itself. I think that some of the blame for events like the 2008 collapse can be placed in the inaccurate atomization and rationalization that is involved in the transformation of concepts from physics into thinking about economics.
If the case of economics, using the language of physics is frequently a means of disguising a thinkers actual motivation for making claims about the marketplace. Discussing employment in the terms of gravitation can become more than a metaphor - it can be a way of hiding or minimizing problems like unemployment and poverty.
These types on concerns are not present in the study of theoretical neuroscience. However, in the context of our discussion, the mode of inquiry in neuroscience can complicate the application of mathematical models developed in the context of physics. In an important way, all efforts in neuroscience are attempting to uncover the function of the material that we are studying and how the material's structure performs the function. This type of investigation is radially different from the study of a mere physical system - an ideal gas has properties but it does not have a function. In the example of facial recognition, the quality of recognizing faces is a functional quality of the cortex.
While the mathematical rigor of physics is an important tool in the study of neuroscience and is essential the continued advance of the field, it is important to recognize that the direct comparison of theoretical neuroscience with physics can be misleading as well. I would argue that trying to consider neural systems as no different from physical systems can obscure a true appreciation of the the biology even while mathematics is an essential tool in the study of the brain.
All this being said I cannot agree with you more about the importance of mathematical rigor in the advancement of neuroscience and I really look forward to your class this semester. Perhaps we can continue this conversation in a context less distracting.