Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science
Cornwell (John), Ed.
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BOOK ABSTRACT:

Cover Blurbs

  1. "A person is not explainable in molecular, field-theoretical, or physiological terms alone." With that declaration, Nobel laureate Gerald M. Edelman goes straight to the heart of Nature's Imagination, a vibrant and important collection of essays by some of the world's foremost scientists. Ever since the Enlightenment, the authors write, science has pursued reductionism: the idea that the whole can be understood by examining and explaining each of its parts. But as this book shows, scientists in every discipline are reaching for a new paradigm that accounts for the whole — from the individual person to the universe itself.
  2. Nature's Imagination gathers together the work of thirteen leading mathematicians, astronomers, neuroscientists, and philosophers, as they discuss the revolution sweeping the sciences. Here Roger Penrose, Oliver Sacks, John Barrow, Gregory Chaifin, Margaret Boden, and others explore how and why classic reductionism is falling by the wayside in their own fields. As Freeman Dyson writes in the introduction, science is an art form, not a philosophical method, and it is always in search of new tools. Reductionism has done its work, and scientists are in search of another. Roger Penrose offers a fascinating account of irreducibility in mathematics, starting with the example of an impossible triangle — a drawing of a triangular object twisted so that could not exist in three dimensions. He breaks the triangle into three parts, showing that each corner is physically possible; only in combination is the triangle impossible. Both Penrose and mathematician Gregory Chaitin explore Gödel’s incompleteness theorem — as does John Barrow, who explains that Chaitin's proof of the theorem shows that, if we ever arrive at a Theory of Everything, there may be a still deeper and simpler unifying theory beyond that. Other contributors discuss the changing thinking in neuroscience, and the limitations of a mechanical view of the mind: as Oliver Sacks writes, "if we are to have a model or theory of mind as this actually occurs in living creatures in the world, it may have to be radically different from anything like a computational one." In addition, this volume includes staunch defenders of the classic scientific approach, such as Peter Atkins ("The omnipotence of science, and in particular the simplicity its reductionist insight reveals, should be accepted as a working hypothesis until, if ever, it is proved inadequate").
  3. The advance of science has been so startlingly swift in the last century that it has begun to approach limits never dreamed of before. This remarkable volume captures the latest thinking on where we must turn if we are to truly understand ourselves and the universe we live in.
  4. John Cornwell is Director of the Science and Human Dimension Project, Jesus College, Cambridge University.
  5. From the Introduction
    • "Science is not governed by the rules of Western philosophy or Western methodology. Science is an alliance of free spirits in all cultures rebelling against the local tyranny that each culture imposes on its children. In so far as I am a scientist, my vision of the universe is not reductionist or anti-reductionist. I have no use for Western isms of any kind. Like Loren Eiseley, I feel myself a traveller on a journey that is far longer than the history of nations and philosophies, longer even than the history of our species....
    • "If we try to squeeze science into a single philosophical viewpoint such as reductionism, we are like Procrustes chopping off the feet of his guests when they do not fit on to his bed. Science flourishes best when it uses freely all the tools at hand, unconstrained by preconceived notions of what science ought to be. Every time we introduce a new tool, it always leads to new and unexpected discoveries, because nature's imagination is richer than ours."
    Freeman Dyson

BOOK COMMENT:

Oxford University Press, 1995. Nice hardback copy.



"Atkins (Peter) - The Limitless Power of Science"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science



"Barrow (John) - Theories of Everything"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science



"Boden (Margaret) - Artificial Intelligence and Human Dignity"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science



"Chaitin (Gregory J.) - Randomness In Arithmetic and the Decline and Fall of Reductionism in Pure Mathematics"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science



"Churchland (Paul) & Churchland (Patricia) - Intertheoretic Reduction: a Neuroscientist's Field Guide"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science
COMMENT: Also in "Churchland (Paul) & Churchland (Patricia) - On the Contrary: Critical Essays, 1987 - 1997"



"Clocksin (W.F.) - Knowledge Representation and Myth"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science



"Cornwell (John) - Nature's Imagination: Preface"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science



"Dyson (Freeman) - The Scientist as Rebel"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science



"Edelman (Gerald M.) - Memory and the Individual Soul: Against Silly Reductionism"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science



"Edelman (Gerald M.) & Tononi (Guilio) - Neural Darwinism: the Brain as a Selection System"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science



"Midgley (Mary) - Reductive Megalomania"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science



"Penrose (Roger) - Must Mathematical Physics Be Reductionist?"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science



"Sacks (Oliver) - A New Vision of the Mind"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science



"Wang (Hao) - On 'Computabilism' and Physicalism: Some Subproblems"

Source: Cornwell - Nature's Imagination - A Debate on the Future of Science


Introduction
  1. Thinking is an essential component of human life. We are naturally interested in a systematic study of the activity of thinking. However, on account of its private and ephemeral character, we have come to distrust unaided reflections on our consciousness and to depend more on the study of the accompanying behaviours and the physiology of the brain, which are publicly observable. Recently the use of computational models has been added to these older tools for the study of the mind.
  2. Indeed, with the rapid development and the increasingly broad application of computers, the traditional problem of mind and matter experiences a revival in the guise of a sharper formulation in terms of computers and computation. It is of both practical and theoretical significance to determine the extent to which thinking is computational. The ambitious general question is to ask whether all thinking is basically computational. Or, to use a familiar but ambiguous formulation: can computers think?
  3. The central component of what I call computabilism is the position which answers this question affirmatively. When we try, however, to think about the reasons for and against this position, we begin to realize that we are inclined to conflate different questions by using certain natural but hard-to-justify presuppositions. In particular, most people who study the question today tend to assume, without pausing to ask for reasons, some form of physicalism1 or naturalism. More specifically, the common assumption is psychophysiological parallelism in the sense of a one-to-one correlation between mental and physiological phenomena. Consequently, computabilism for the mental is identified with computabilism for brain processes.
  4. In this essay I shall first try to formulate some problems about the thesis of parallelism and its related conception of (the scope of) science. In any case, regardless of the truth or falsity of the thesis of parallelism, it is helpful to distinguish computabilism for the mental from that for the brain, because the reasons for and against them are of quite different types. In particular, we know at present more about the mind than about the brain.
  5. Once we make such a distinction, we see that computabilism for the brain is related to the general question about the computational character of physical and biological processes. What is often known as physicalism2 includes both the thesis of psychophysiological parallelism and one of biophysical parallelism, which postulates some sort of reducibility of the biological to the physical. However, for all we know, even if computabilism for the physical is true, it does not follow necessarily that computabilism for the biological is also true.
  6. We see, therefore, that the position of computabilism involves a number of different problems. I shall here consider some of these problems and shall formulate a few more definite subproblems. I shall present my thoughts under the following four headings:
    1. Parallelism and the scope of science: can minds do more than brains?
    2. Computabilism for the brain: is the brain like a computer?
    3. Computabilism for the physical: is physics algorithmic?
    4. Computabilism for the mental: is all thinking computational?
  7. The content of consciousness is available to each of us through our inner experience and our disciplined introspection. There are certainly many conscious processes that are not at present known to be representable in physiological or physical or computational terms. The challenge or the frustrating task is to arrive at a reasonable conjecture as to the truth or falsity of physicalism and computabilism on the basis of what we know, taking into consideration our gross ignorance about the full powers of brains and computers.



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