Monday, September 9, 2013

There IS no Theory of Everydamnthing, Get Over It

Philip Kitchner, Things Fall Apart (yes indeed they do!), The New York Times:
Thinkers in the grip of the Newtonian picture of science want a general basis for general phenomena. Life isn’t like that. Unity fails at both ends. To understand the fundamental processes that go on in living things — mitosis, meiosis, inheritance, development, respiration, digestion and many, many more — you need a vast ensemble of models, differing on a large number of details. Spelling out the explanations requires using metaphors (“reading” DNA) or notions that cannot be specified generally and precisely in the austere languages of physics and chemistry (“close association”). But the phenomena to be explained also decompose into a number of different clusters.

The molecular biologist doesn’t account for life, but for a particular function of life (usually in a particular strain of a particular species). Nagel’s 19th-century predecessors wondered how life could be characterized in physico-chemical terms. That particular wonder hasn’t been directly addressed by the extraordinary biological accomplishments of past decades. Rather, it’s been shown that they were posing the wrong question: don’t ask what life is (in your deepest Newtonian voice); consider the various activities in which living organisms engage and try to give a piecemeal understanding of those.
Mind is like that too:
Minds do lots of different things. Neuroscience and psychology have been able to explore a few of them in promising ways. Allegedly, however, there are “hard problems” they will never overcome. The allegations are encouraged by an incautious tendency for scientists to write as if the most complex functions of mental life — consciousness, for example — will be explained tomorrow.

The route to the molecular account of organic functions began in a relatively humble place, with eye color in fruit-flies. A useful moral for neuroscience today would be to emulate the efforts of the great geneticists in the wake of the rediscovery of Mendel’s ideas. Start with more tractable questions — for example, how do minds direct the movement of our muscles? — and see how far you can get. With luck, in a century or so, the issue of how mind fits into the physical world will seem as quaint as the corresponding concern about life.
Frankly, it seems a bit quaint now. And, come to think of it, though I've given Dennett a hard time for his boneheaded (again, with the frankness) views on memes, he seems to realize this. So give him some props, people!

Of Nagel and many others, Kitchner observes: "the phenomena that concern him, mind and value, are not illusory, but it might nevertheless be an illusion that they constitute single topics for which unified explanations can be given." YES! It's pluralism all the way down!

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