Stephen Jay Gould: On the Reduction/Anti-Reduction Debate

At this point in the chain of statements, the classical error  of reductionism often makes its entrance, via the following argument: If our  brain’s unique capacities arise from its material substrate, and if that  substrate originated through ordinary evolutionary processes, then those unique  capacities must be explainable by (reducible to) “biology” (or some other  chosen category expressing standard scientific principles and procedures).

The primary fallacy of this argument has been recognized  from the inception of this hoary debate. “Arising from” does not mean “reducible  to,” for all the reasons embodied in the old cliche that a whole can be more  than the sum of its parts. To employ the technical parlance of two fields,  philosophy describes this principle by the concept of “emergence*,” while science  speaks of “nonlinear” or “nonadditive” interaction. In terms of building  materials, a new entity may contain nothing beyond its constituent parts, each  one of fully known composition and operation. But if, in forming the new entity,  these constituent parts interact in a “nonlinear” fashion—that is, if the  combined action of any two parts in the new entity yields something other than  the sum of the effect of part one acting alone plus the effect of part two  acting alone—then the new entity exhibits “emergent” properties that cannot  be explained by the simple summation of the parts in question. Any new entity  that has emergent properties—and I can’t imagine anything very complex  without such features—cannot, in principle, be explained by (reduced to)  the structure and function of its building blocks.

— Stephen Jay Gould, In Gratuitous Battle


* A note he qualifies his use of “emergence”:

Please note that this definition of “emergence” includes no  statement about the mystical, the ineffable, the unknowable, the spiritual, or  the like—although the confusion of such a humdrum concept as nonlinearity  with this familiar hit parade has long acted as the chief impediment to  scientific understanding and acceptance of such a straightforward and  commonsensical phenomenon. When I argue that the behavior of a particular  mammal can’t be explained by its genes, or even as the simple sum of its genes  plus its environment of upbringing, I am not saying that behavior can’t be  approached or understood scientifically. I am merely pointing out that any full  understanding must consider the organism at its own level, as a product of  massively nonlinear interaction among its genes and environments. (When you  grasp this principle, you will immediately understand why such  pseudosophisticated statements as the following are not even wrong, but merely  nonsensical: “I’m not a naive biological determinist. I know that intelligence  represents an interaction of genes and environment—and I hear that the  relative weights are about 40 percent genes and 60 percent environment.”)

The American Cyborg: Neuroscience, DARPA, and BRAIN

Proverbs for Paranoids: You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.

– Thomas Pynchon,  Gravity’s Rainbow

What if the Master has a steel face and looks something like the DARPA Atlas in the image above? When we discover the Master is a mask for the economic masters one need not worry about tickling any creatures whatsoever, more than likely they will be tickling you soon enough. That’s what I thought the first time I saw the White House BRAIN. Yes, yes… the new Manhattan Project of the decade or millennia is to unlock the secrets in the your skull – that three-pound loaf of grey matter that swims behind your eyes recreating moment by moment the words you are reading in the blips and bits of electronic light from your screen at this very moment. In the bold print we hear about the wonders that will be accomplished through such research: “…a bold new research effort to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.” All good, of course, nothing wrong with solving the terrible problems of the brain that have brought so much devastation and suffering to millions. But then one looks down the page and notices where the major portion of the funding is going and realizes … hmm… military (DARPA) expenditure: $50 million for understanding the dynamic functions of the brain and demonstrating breakthrough applications based on these insights.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD). It manages and directs selected basic and applied research and development projects for U.S Department of Defense and pursues research and technology where risk and payoff are both very high and where success may provide dramatic advances for traditional military roles and missions. DARPA sponsors such things as robotic challenges(here). Their mission statement tells it all:

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was established in 1958 to prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. national security and create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military.

To fulfill its mission, the Agency relies on diverse performers to apply multi-disciplinary approaches to both advance knowledge through basic research and create innovative technologies that address current practical problems through applied research.  DARPA’s scientific investigations span the gamut from laboratory efforts to the creation of full-scale technology demonstrations in the fields of biology, medicine, computer science, chemistry, physics, engineering, mathematics, material sciences, social sciences, neurosciences and more.  As the DoD’s primary innovation engine, DARPA undertakes projects that are finite in duration but that create lasting revolutionary change.

Rene Descartes: The Diversity of the Sciences as Human Wisdom

Distinguishing the sciences by the differences in their objects, they think that each science should be studied separately, without regard to any of the others. But here they are surely mistaken. For the sciences as a whole are nothing other than human wisdom, which always remains one and the same, however different the subjects to which it is applied, it being no more altered by them than sunlight is by the variety of the things it shines on. Hence there is no need to impose any restrictions on our mental powers; for the knowledge of one truth does not, like skill in one art, hinder us from discovering another; on the contrary it helps us.

– René Descartes,  The Philosophical Writings of Descartes

This notion that the common thread that unites all the diverse sciences is the acquisition of human wisdom must be tempered by that further statement about the freeing of the mind from any intemperate restriction or regulation that would force it to down the path of specialization and expertise. What I mean by this is the fact that for Descartes like many in that era were discovering the sciences in all their diversity during a time when the tendency toward almost guild like enclosure and secrecy was taking effect rather than an open and interdependent,  pluralistic investigation; and, in that way they were becoming more and more isolated and closed off from one another in such a way that the truths of one field of study were no longer crossing the demarcated lines as knowledge in a universal sense of shared wisdom. Instead learning in one field of the sciences was becoming restrictive, segmented, and closed off from other fields in such a way that knowledge as a source of wisdom was becoming divided as well as divisive.

Continue reading