Eric Wasiolek

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The Problem with Neuroscience

Philosophical Papers - April 2, 2019

Before engaging in my brief diatribe here, I should establish my credentials.  I am a neuroscientist.  I did advanced neuroscientific research at Grinnell college and my Masters Thesis in Computational Biology was a computational neuroscience project.

Here’s the problem.  Despite the progress that neuroscience is making in some important sense it is making hardly any progress at all.  It still hasn’t the slightest idea what neuro-scientifically consciousness is.  I will say more about this later.  And in terms of mapping cognitive functions to brain areas, there is only some gross information, on the order of, these 80,000 neurons are activated during a certain cognitive task versus these other 80,000 neurons activated in another cognitive task.  Recording will get better, but what you want is a CIRCUIT DIAGRAM of neural circuits, this neural circuit does this brain or cognitive function, etc.… We have nothing like this.  We are still back at the “jungles” of Cajal, where we have large numbers of neurons connected by much larger numbers of synapses, and yet we can’t resolve this network (or as in my computational neuroscience project, graph) into individual neural circuits that perform specific functions.  I have yet to see that sort of information from neuroscience even in the simplest organisms.  Take my C Elegans, 902 neurons and less than 4000 synapses.  I created a graph or computational network of this.  Yet, it was not resolved or resolvable into neural circuits that perform simple feeding functions, mating functions etc.… it just remained a Cajal jungle of neurons represented as a graph.  Neuroscience eventually should be able to produce electrical engineering type circuit diagrams of specific cognitive functions, it is so far from this that I have to laugh.  And here’s the rub.  Even if someday we have an electrical engineering circuit level description of the neural-synaptic network, it still tells us NOTHING about consciousness.  I.e., we might learn what neural circuits are involved in specific cognitive tasks, but why those tasks are conscious tasks, we will still have NO IDEA!

I became dismayed with neuroscience and the lack of progress it is making on all of the important questions about cognition and consciousness, and hence turned to Philosophy of Mind and the Mind-Body or Mind-Brain problem as at least a reasonable delineation of what the various relations between a mind (cognitive tasks and consciousness) and brain may be.

I’m a scientist and a philosopher in pursuit of the truth, and hence remain very critical of science.

As a result of my discussion on the shortcomings of neuroscience with Raymond, I have the following to say.  It may well be the case that cognitive tasks are not explained so much by neural circuits as they are by programs (we’ll suppose a program is a set and sequence of electrochemical firings in different configurations of neurons) that may be distributed over a number of groups of neurons.  I.e., this is the theory that the mind is more like a software program running on the hardware of the neural circuitry, moreover it may be like a distributed processing program where electrophysiological events in different parts of the brain coordinate their activities to accomplish a cognitive task.  We are not anywhere near the point yet where we can correlate a set of electrophysiological events (firings down neurons and across synapses) with a cognitive task, but that may be more the way to go than the neural circuitry idea.  We know that the brain has a certain amount of neuroplasticity, which means functions or cognitive tasks may be taken over by other parts of the brain, indicating that the cognitive task is not necessarily specifically bound to one locus.  This tends to support more the software model of the mind.  Neuroplasticity only goes so far, however, as there do seem to be locuses for certain tasks.  Take linguistic processing, this seems to be in the left parietal cortex or Wernicke’s and Broca’s area.  However, when some linguistic processing is lost, as due to a stroke, there can be partial takeover and recovery by other (perhaps similar) areas of the brain.  So, the exact relation between the software (what I am calling electrophysiological firings) and hardware (neural circuits, i.e., combinations of neurons and synapses) is not exactly clear. 

Raymond and I also had some discussion on various theories of the relation between mind and brain.  Many brain scientists are calling consciousness and mind emergent neural properties, which Raymond was quick to remind me doesn’t equate with epiphenomenalism.  Also, Georges Rey’s work in relating Chompskian deep structures to his theory of mind (and I would like to see neurophysiologists relate Chompskian deep structures to Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas) was discussed by Raymond and me.  Finally, I said if anomalous monism is correct the inability to bring mental phenomena under physical law is going to create a great problem for neuroscience to try to give a complete neural description of mental events.

Copyright Eric Wasiolek April 2, 2019

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