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Correcting a reductionist bias

By Timothy Cocks Philosophy of pain 06 Mar 2017


Thought provoking piece from Alva Noë from npr:

Moving Toward Understanding Consciousness

If you stop and think about it, the idea that you could understand a complex system by detailed description of one its parts is crazy on the face of it.

I and others have been making this argument for some time with little discernible influence on the general hype. (See here, here and here.) The Year of the Brain, the Decade of the Brain, the Connectome, the Brain project, etc. So it is an event of considerable note — maybe one of genuine historical importance — that a group of top neuroscientists from around the world have recently come together to write an opinion piece in the journal Neuron calling on neuroscience to “correct its reductionist bias” and embrace a “more pluralistic neuroscience.”

Science has never been just about information or data. Science aims at understanding, at knowledge. By calling for a rejection of simple-minded reductionism and by encouraging brain scientists to think again about the conceptual puzzle of understanding the relation between the life of an organism and what is going on around it, as well as inside of it, these neuroscientists are taking important strides towards setting up an adequate neuroscience of cognition and consciousness(emphasis added)

The opinion piece mentioned by Noë is Neuroscience Needs Behavior: Correcting a Reductionist Bias (open access link), and is definitely worth reading:

“New technologies have enabled the acquisition of massive and intricate datasets, and the means to analyze them have become concomitantly more complex. This in turn has led to a need for experts in computation and data analysis, with a reduced emphasis on organismal-level thinkers who develop detailed functional analyses of behavior, its developmental trajectory, and its evolutionary basis. Deep and thorny questions like ‘‘what would even count as an explanation in this context,’’ ‘‘what is a mechanism for the behavior we are trying to understand,’’ and ‘‘what does it mean to understand the brain’’ get sidelined… Technique-driven neuroscience could be considered an example of what is known as the substitution bias: ‘‘[.] when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution’’ (Kahneman, 2011, p. 12).” (empahsis added)

Perhaps worth thinking about that final quote from Kahneman when considering whether one unfortunate trivialisation – the labelling of nociceptors as pain fibres, has been replaced by another – pain is in the brain…

Are there enough organismal-level thinkers in pain science?

-Tim Cocks


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  1. jqu33431quintner

    Tim, for “pain is in the brain” read “pain is one of many protective outputs of the brain”? Is this another example of reductionism?

  2. Thanks Tim,

    Regarding reductionistic strategies to understand the brain it may be useful to see things in perspective, one example is: our own limitations, a quote from a recent piece in Nature:

    “Neuroscience: Big brain, big data”
    E. Landhuis Nature January 2017
    ” Using the same protocol to image the 86 billion neurons in the human brain would take an estimated 17 million years”
    (imaging at single-cell resolution that is)

  3. Tim,

    The word “reductionism” is enough to put people off. You’d think that today they’d just look it up. You’d be wrong.

    The Age of Information has had an unintended consequence, and curiosity isn’t what we assumed it was.


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