Is Neuroscience Based On Biology?

By Neuroskeptic | March 7, 2015 9:21 am

There is a popular view that all of the natural sciences can be arranged in a chain or ladder according to the complexity of their subjects.

On this view, physics forms the base of the ladder because it deals with the simplest building-blocks of matter, atoms and subatomic particles. Chemistry is next up because it studies interacting atoms i.e. molecules. Biology studies complex collections of molecules, i.e. cells. Then comes neuroscience which deals with a complex collection of interacting cells – the brain. Psychology, perhaps, can be seen as the next level above neuroscience, because psychology studies brains interacting with each other and with the environment.

So this on this model, we have a kind of Great Chain of Science, something like this:


This is an appealing model. But is biology really basic to neuroscience (and psychology)?

At first glance it seems like biology – most importantly cell and molecular biology – surely is basic to neuroscience. After all, brains are comprised of cells. All of the functions of brain cells, like synaptic transmission and plasticity, are products of biological machinery, i.e. proteins and ultimately genes. This doesn’t imply that neuroscience could be ‘reduced to’ biology, any more than biology will ever be reduced to pure chemistry, but it does seem to imply that biology is the foundation for neuroscience.

However, could this be a mistake?

Consider computers as an analogy. Suppose that everyone in the world suddenly forgot how computers work. Scientists would start to study them, creating a discipline of ‘computoscience’. Now, eventually scientists would discover that all computers are based around electronic circuits built out of semiconductors. They would discover that physics can explain how electrons flow through circuits. Scientists might therefore conclude that computoscience is based on physics.

This would be a mistake, however. In fact, while computers are indeed electronic devices, this is only an accident. In theory, a computer could be built of almost anything. The essence of a computer is not electronics but computation: the storage and manipulation of symbols. The foundation of computer science is logic, a branch of mathematics, not physics, even though the physics of electricity can be used to implement that logic.

Could it be that brains are only accidentally made of cells, just as computers are only accidentally made of semiconductors? If so, neuroscience would not be founded on biology but on something else, something analogous to the mathematical logic that underpins computer science. What could this be?


It’s possible that brains are computers and that neuroscience will one day be unified with computer science. In that case, the same logic would underlie both. But that’s not the only possibility. The underlying principle of neuroscience may be something else, something that remains to be discovered. This would be an abstract system that happens to be implemented through biology in the form of brains.

If that’s the case, a large proportion of today’s neuroscience, being focused on biology (synapses, receptors, blood flow, etc.) is contributing to our understanding of neuro-biology, but it’s not helping us to understand the brain per se, any more than electrical research could help us understand computer programming. I’m not sure I believe that, but it’s a worrying thought.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: philosophy, science, select, Top Posts
  • Bernard Carroll

    Interesting thoughts… Your discussion mirrors E.O. Wilson’s schema of disciplines and antidisciplines. Thus, physics is the antidiscipline of chemistry and chemistry the antidiscipline of biology, and so on. We see emergent complex properties at each progressive level, but no discipline violates the principles of its antidiscipline. When it comes to psychology, the antidiscipline is neurobiology in an evolutionary context. Psychological capacity evolved in complexity as brains evolved through evolution. That includes logic, viewed as a subfield of psychological capacity. If we omit the evolutionary perspective then the line of thought you outline might be plausible, but of course we can’t do that.

  • michellergreene

    Wonderful post. I do think that we need to start thinking more about computation (both in the common sense of modeling, but more importantly in David Marr’s sense of focusing on the “what for” questions). Of course, one can point to examples where a computational principle has been used to explain a neural one – Olshausen & Field’s 1996 paper in which the principle of sparse coding was used to find an optimal set of visual basis functions that look like receptive fields in V1 comes immediately to mind. When we dive too far down the bio-reductionist pathway, we lose the explanations we are trying to find. If in the future we found an optimal brain scanner whereby we could know the state of every molecule in every neuron in real time, this wouldn’t directly let us answer questions like “how did I recognize my friend Sam?”.

    • pip010

      heh, isn’t that one of: “can’t see the forest through the trees” :)

  • doctorzen

    What you’re worried about is NOT whether biology can inform us about the brain. The brain is a physical object. What you’re worried about is whether biology can inform us about the mind, however ill defined that may be.

    I think a case can be made that the places where we have made the biggest strides in understanding the mind have been when that has been solidly tied to understanding biology. Discussing the perception of colour or shape without mentioning the cones in the retina, how they interconnect, and so on, would be a difficult.

    • ka8ob

      doctorzen: Spot on! Since my college days 40 years ago studying Psychobiology at UCR I’ve enjoyed thinking on and discussing this very issue, yet disappointed how little attention this gets in public forums. Alan Turing “invented” the concept of a programmable computer, just to solve a problem (the Halting Problem) in logic. He demonstrated the generality of a “Turing Machine” which might be implemented in many possible ways. Richard Feynman observed that humans divide up the universe into parts (chemistry, biology, etc.) for our own convenience, yet nature does not know it!
      If we are to understand the mind (and nature in general) more fully, we must do both: 1. study how our own minds are implemented in biological and physical processes (retinal detection, cortical processing for stereopsis, color assignment, and so forth) AND 2. regard this implementation as only a special case of more general natural phenomena. We know only one planet, Earth, very well. Think what astounding natural phenomena there may be elsewhere in nature, of which we see only a small sample!

      • feloniousgrammar

        But isn’t that computing process a reflection of a natural processes? When I watch an ant navigate a textured rug, I see recursion. Flow charts are an illustration of, and not a blueprint of thinking processes so natural that infants use them. Thinking of our brain/mind as a computer, seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse, and radically oversimplifying us.

        • ka8ob

          Good point. A mind and a computer both seem to rely on the same set of natural laws. Or possibly overlapping subsets of laws? We do not yet fully understand those laws. Will we ever? It may be possible to implement a mind in silicon, or a computer in a neural network. Once a (non-human) machine can pass the Turing Test, will we be able to learn whether that machine has a subjective experience as we do? Anyway, I agree that the simplest explanation is that computers and minds and everything else are nothing more or less than natural phenomena, products of mindless evolution.

          • feloniousgrammar

            Mindless, perhaps for most of the history of life, but responsive.

    • Neuroskeptic

      I see your point: and yes what I’m worried about is whether biology can inform us about the mind. But given that the mind is the activity of the brain, this is also a question about the brain.

      • Glen Sizemore

        We do have such a language – the language of behavior analysis. The “mind” is a specious explanatory fiction.

    • feloniousgrammar

      The fact that we don’t have language to talk about this without the Cartesian dichotomy is crippling, I think. As with nature/nurture, we keep being drawn back into non-existent duality and division in our thoughts.

      Of course, we study parts to understand a whole, but what is the whole here? Irreducible complexity may be fact. I think the way our universities divide knowledge is a bit outdated in some ways and we need to develop a new discourse for all academic pursuits that can be shared.

      We’re just starting to work on the problems of lacking a common language in interdisciplinary science studies, and I suspect that dispensing the embrasure of simple models and divisions beyond understanding specific aspects of a whole is a major first step toward not hobbling ourselves by making abstractions concrete. We still need to talk about mind/brain/etc as we explore it, though the terms and models can be misleading.

  • Henry Harrison

    It seems to me the picture is much more complicated than this linear chain. Notably, we can make direct links between physics and psychology that aren’t mediated by chemistry or biology or neuroscience. This can be seen in the application of statistical physics methodologies to behavior and discoveries that there are general principles that apply to complex, self-organizing systems at all scales—principles that are based firmly in physics. Along similar lines, there is a recent attempt to understand intelligence as a physical phenomena, the product of non-equilibrium thermodynamics.

    Thus, in my view this kind of naive reductionism is increasingly less tenable. The real question is not whether neuroscience reduces to biology or to computer science or to something else but whether it is sensible to reduce it at all.

    • PsyoSkeptic

      The fact that you can see directly from Psychology station to Physics station doesn’t mean the rail doesn’t have to travel through a lot of stops along the way. This seems to me an orthogonal argument, not one that directly undermines the structures proposed (or ones like them). Perhaps you were interpreting that the drawing of these foundations as meaning that it’s necessary to understand each intervening step to understand the next one down. In that case you have a point.

      But the way the point is currently made it suggests that the physics isn’t implemented in chemistry, biology and neuroscience. That’s an error. Or, perhaps the argument is that a full understanding of how the psychology is currently implemented won’t require any understanding of neuroscience. That’s an error too.

      (I’ll ignore any argument about whether this is a direct connection in the example because this could been made entirely hypothetically and still be just as valid.)

      • Henry Harrison

        I don’t mean to discard any of the lines between scales of phenomena (if the lines are interpreted to mean “X can teach us about Y” rather than something more strong like “X entirely explains Y”—in which case, no lines at all, please).

        Rather, I mean to add lines between scales. Phenomena at one scale can teach us about phenomena at another scale, even if they are not adjacent, and not simply *via* the chain of adjacent scales. Physics teaches us about psychology, and not only because it teaches us about biology which teaches us about neuroscience which teaches us about psychology (to be clear, physics informs psychology in that indirect way as well).

        There are principles that apply at multiple scales, in addition to principles that apply at one scale by virtue of principles that apply at a lower scale. Reductionism trades only in the latter.

  • lump1

    If computoscience really were just the study of the *computers we found under our desks*, then yes, it would most definitely be an applied instance of E&M and solid state physics. Only if it’s the science of *computation as such* is there any reason to see it as a branch of math and logic.

    Neurosicence is the study of the *brains we found in our skulls*, not the study of the abstract process of cognition. That’s why it’s a branch of biology.

    • Neuroskeptic

      But how could we understand the computers on our desks without realizing that their purpose was to carry out computation as such?

      • PsyoSkeptic

        We wouldn’t. But that doesn’t deny lump1’s point really. We’d need to have a firm understanding of the electronic signals in order to get at the logic. We wouldn’t need a full physics of the electronics and I think that’s more to your point. We have to decide at what level studying the biology and chemistry of the brain no longer serves the purpose of moving neuroscience forward. Since we don’t really know enough about it yet we’re going to have to attack at multiple levels until we can make that distinction. So, I take your post as being about a paring of the science that may need to be done in the future.

      • lump1

        I think you’re right, and what I’m about to say might be controversial, but isn’t biology itself concerned with describing the purpose of biological functions? No biologist would think that an understanding of kidneys or T-cells is adequate without some sort of account of what they accomplish. Of course neurology must address the purpose of brain processes, but in order to talk about teleology/purpose, you don’t really need to go beyond biology.

  • A Renaissance-Man

    You seem to be saying that neuroscience will not be reduced to cellular or molecular biology (though this is not clear here). But that is not the only model of biology available. For instance, evolutionary biologists study complex systems with emergent properties . . . and the brain is a canonical example of a complex adaptive system. Perhaps aspects of neuroscience represent a similar branch of biology.

    Yes, according to Minsky’s notion of functionalism computation can be instantiated in any number of systems. And in computer science they have found that you can accomplish tasks with physical symbol systems, neural networks, Bayesian models, etc. That said, my sense is that this dogma is not as securely established for real brains. And while certain capabilities of the brain seem well described as a physical symbol system, a great many others do not.

    • Neuroskeptic

      I’m not a dualist – the brain is a purely physical object. Just as a computer is. What I’m wondering is whether we will need a new formalism (analogous to the logic and the concept of Turing machines etc etc.) to make sense of that object.

      • pip010

        I think you nailed it!
        Fundamentally I’m interested in WHY such networks/interactions exist in the brain at the first place and not exactly HOW they come about. Of course, we need to go through HOW to find WHY.
        But Yes, translating the same principle to computer should not involve me understanding molecular biology. The reason I’m skeptical to project as the big brain project where supercomputer is used to simulate the brain on molecular level!

  • Solip

    What you are arguing is actually that psychology is not necessarily based in neuroscience (e.g. cognition/computation can take place in different substrates). It’s not an argument that neuroscience isn’t rooted in biology.

    • feloniousgrammar

      Yes. The study of psychology may not necessarily be based in neuroscience, but the nervous system and human psychology itself cannot be separated. Clearly, there are scientists studying neuroscience and psychology together. It’s a nascent pursuit, so I expect it to have all the pitfalls of any new and exuberant study; but that doesn’t make psychology any less rooted in science, or neurology any less rooted in biology.

      I’m guessing whether or not neuroscience is rooted in biology depends on who you ask and what they’re researching. Perhaps my ignorance is talking, but it strikes me as a question that only needs to be asked to clarify one’s own direction of study or analysis.

  • matus

    I wrote about this topic in the context of psychology on my blog:

    Ultimately, all of science speaks single language and that’s probability theory and causality. Our measurements of human behavior and brain states are rather imprecise and the causal structure is much more branched than in physics. That’s why physics is easy and psychology and neuroscience are difficult.

    Btw. there is some evidence for the chain of sciences :-) Fanelli D (2010) ‘”Positive” Results Increase Down the Hierarchy of the Sciences. PLoS ONE 5(4)

  • Come on think!

    Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system (copied from wikipedia). So of course it is based in biology. That is where the nervous system is built.
    Psychology is an academic and applied discipline that involves the scientific study of mental functions and behaviors (copied from wikipedia). So it should be over with computer programming.

  • Chill Chick

    Interesting idea. However, human brains are not Turing machines. They are messy and imprecise, and frequently make mistakes. It seems to me if intelligence arose spontaneously out of some other substrate, it would most likely be a fundamentally different type of intelligence. Therefore biology remains relevant in studying human intelligence.

    • Jespersen

      Artificial intelligence is also messy and imprecise and frequently makes mistakes, even though it’s based on Turing machines.

      The architecture of the computers may be “logical”, but state-of-the-art machine learning systems (e.g. neural networks used for image recognition) are data-driven algorithms, and so they make mistakes. Circuits or neurons aren’t intelligent by themselves, “intelligence” comes from what you make the neurons or the circuits do.

      • feloniousgrammar

        I’ve grokked that through experience with Windows and WordPress, no AI necessary.

  • Jespersen

    You could say neuroscience is already unified with computer science, at least in areas where research in human and artificial intelligence overlaps. Recurrent neural networks used in AI, for example, were originally inspired by the design of the human brain, and I’ve encountered papers which in turn used them to model aspects of the human mind, thus completing the circle.

    In fact, artificial intelligence as a field is also pretty detached from
    the basics of computer science, just like computer science is pretty
    detached from electronics. I personally like the idea of putting AI research alongside neuroscience under the label of “cognitive science”.

    But there’s still a big chance studying the ‘biological’ aspects of the human brain may reveal something unique about the way the human mind functions. For example, neural oscillation has no equivalents in any machine learning systems as far as I’m aware, so perhaps AI’s doomed to forever lack certain capacities the human mind offers.

    • Barry Sheppard

      I do wonder if at some point AI’s will get to the stage of complexity, especially if using connectome style neural networks, where a Psychology style approach be useful. A form of CBT for AI maybe?

    • feloniousgrammar

      Computers may, rhetorically or actually have their own embodiment, but they can’t have ours, because they don’t have our bodies, which have evolved from 14.5 billion years of life on earth.

      Computers just got here, like telephones, and light bulbs. Sure, they’re a result of our cognitive, social, and technical evolution, but only a very small part of it.

  • Brent Allsop

    We resolve this so called “hard problem”, by pointing out that it is just a solvable quale interpretation problem in this new paper entitled “Detecting Qualia”:

    Would love any feedback.

  • Richard Weinberg

    Long ago, when his daughter asked about the difference between the brain and a computer, my NIMH colleague (MH) answered “the brain is wet.” Abstract aspects of neuroscience may transcend biology, but I think it would be silly to suggest that neuroscience is not tightly linked to the brain, a biological object.

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  • Paul Brown

    Is psychology a science at all, in the sense that physics, chemistry and biology are? Psychologists cannot get experimental control, in any meaningful way, of their subjects of enquiry as there is a no route to knowing what sense any single individual is making of whatever experimental task s/he is engaged in – let alone whether that task has any real relationship to the complexity of the unplanned external world it attempts in part to simulate. And the idea that animal experiments will tell us anything meaningful about human behaviour is too trivial to make the argument against. Looking back over the 20th century it is clear that psychology is largely a set of belief systems, not real science, with psychologists offering ‘explanations’ that are in fact descriptions of their own preferred theoretical attachments. It is not that some psychologists have not had great insights – Freud with regard to early emotional development, for instance, though he was a rotten model builder: or Bowlby with regard to attachment theory: or Hebb with regard to the nature of associative learning – but they developed no means of arriving at any kind of working truth about the person: just ‘positions’ and ‘schools’ of psychology that resembled mediaeval theologies each in conflict with the other and trying to maintain their own position. What neuroscience may do for psychology is bring it into the mainstream of neurobiology. In twenty years time there may be as few departments of psychology, as now understood, as there are departments of theology – not the first requirement of a university in any developing or developed country.

    • feloniousgrammar

      Physicists have some trouble with experimental control, as well.

      And understanding attachment theory can result in avoiding some nasty results in human development.

      Observation is as scientific as the scientific method and has given birth to most of our sciences. Science didn’t just invent itself as a world apart from living. Being scientific isn’t limited to the formal; experimentation with thought and materials is a natural part of gaining knowledge and understanding, no quantification necessary.

  • Lorenzo Grespan

    Obligatory XKCD reference:

    • Neuroskeptic

      Indeed. If you look closely you’ll find that I snuck that link into the post already!

  • Orion

    Superb article

  • Jayarava

    “Could it be that brains are only accidentally made of cells, just as computers are only accidentally made of semiconductors?”

    Well. It *could* be. But in practice the only brains we know of are made of cells. And our attempts to model brains on computers simply don’t work – no one has successful modeled the simple brain of Caenorhabditis elegans, in the sense of reproducing it’s behavior from it’s neural structure. The best we can do is sort of model isolated functions of brains, and not in any integrated way.

    Neuro-science absolutely needs to be neuron-science, to focus on brains made of cells because that’s what we need to understand in the first place. It might be that AI researchers eventually come up with something that makes us rethink the idea, but like as not they will do so by more accurately modelling neurons, so cells will never lose their relevance.

    The thing about circuit based computation is that we can already model it mechanically. There’s no need to assume that if we had to reverse engineer it, that we would conclude that it *required* circuits. The first computers were mechanical, the second made of vacuum-tube switches and only the latest from semiconductors. If we could reverse engineer a transistor then the most obvious metaphor for it would be as now, a gate controlling the flow of a fluid. The fluid and the gate are arbitrary. I could compute with a system of canals controlled by damns, ditches and dikes over a landscape if I were king (and I might well do).

    The same metaphor has never applied to the brain. The metaphors for neurons are something like river systems or towns; but with a third dimension. And brains are made up of multiple massively interconnected neurons. And if we are to find more basic metaphors at deeper levels of structure and function then we’ll only get there by studying cells – indeed by studying the biochemistry of cells I suspect.

    This is why philosophy is not dead and not irrelevant to science!

    • feloniousgrammar

      Language is everything in every academic pursuit. It would not surprise me if the brain-mapping project led to the development of faster and more nimble computers with much more capability, but— especially where psychiatry is concerned— it seems that there are efforts to create a grand unifying theory before the mapping is even done (if it can be done to any degree of completion).

      Imagine if we had done this with astronomy. Humans told stories about the stars long before we understood them in terms of physics and chemical compositions. We should beware of taking the stories that make sense to us too seriously. An appropriate amount of awe and humility seems to be missing from most popular accounts of brain research. I can almost hear Carl Sagan saying that the universe can be simplified and stripped of its wonder.

    • pip010

      philosophy of thinking about thinking is dead!
      it is considered a FAULT state (unbound recursion) in comp-science for a reason :) without a feedback-loop, which exist all over the brain, it is fundamentally broken.

      good point about the pipes, it was the first thing that came up to me as an example that indeed it is one of many possibilities… to computation and information flow

    • pip010

      and we are able to model human behavior using computer neural networks successfully even at our current state of the art in electronics/computers , which is in infancy.

      a spider robot can learn walking in less than 1 sec;

  • wanagana

    The electronics become very important when your computer does not work properly. Hence I am not sure how one would conduct meaningful research work in neurological or psychiatric disorders (that are part of Neuroscience) without understanding brain biology.

    • Neuroskeptic

      That’s very true – but maybe what that means is that research on neuropsychiatric disorders, while it may be important and useful, is quite separate from ‘core’ neuroscience?

      • feloniousgrammar

        I hope so. I appreciate how neuroscience helps me with MS and is always learning more about it.

        There is certainly a lot more work to do on understanding the nervous system, and I surmise that most of that work doesn’t require application as a premise.

      • wanagana

        Ouch, that is dualism, isn’t it? I read all the other posts and I know you believe you are not a dualist but you use words such as “purpose” and arguments such as the one above that are dualistic. As a number of other postings here I do not have a problem at seeing higher mental abilities emerging from a complex biological system that has evolved to the present form.
        Dualism sometimes is a “God of the gaps” mental tool used when things are not clearly grasped and no mechanistic explanation is available so that it has to become something else. Interesting subject by itself possibly for a future topic?
        Anyway, interesting post as usual

        • ka8ob

          This is not to nitpick, but to point out that human language (English in particular) is rife with dualistic idioms, many of which we use all the time without thinking. Without such shortcuts, which sound very much like dualisms, our speech would become really cumbersome. For example, a neuroscientist may say that the “purpose” of L opsin is to enable primates to distinguish red from green without intending to suggest some planned design. English makes it rather more cumbersome to say instead that, L opsin is conserved due to a selective advantage for primate survival by providing green-red discrimination in making food choices. Similarly, a meteorologist can speak of a sunset without expecting to be contradicted, but knowing full well that there is no such thing, and the earth spins. One might even argue that “psychiatric disorders” imply a false dualism with “psychiatric health”. Could one person’s OCD be another person’s OC advantage?
          So I think the only problem with using the word “purpose” as a shortcut for “conserved due to selective advantage” is not in revealing a teleological bias, but that it is ambiguous. In the absence of a blatantly dichotomous argument, I don’t worry too much.

          • feloniousgrammar

            Yeah, I really wish that English had something like the ser and estar of Spanish, to distinguish between temporary and descriptive states and intrinsic or essential being.

  • Fred Welfare

    Some would insert sociology or society as an organism in this slot because it is the field which includes the individual humans without individualizing reality and understanding social reality as a force, albeit historically and geographically modified, upon every individual.

  • Dennis

    While I don’t understand the importance of this question, let me give you my view, because, well, it’s Sunday ;):

    Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system.

    The nervous system is…
    … a biological system with very specific molecular mechanism, thousands of cell types, and complex anatomy and growth patterns. And as such of course part of the disciplines of molecular and cellular biological disciplines.

    … part of the systems involved in the control of vital function such as homeostasis, breathing, heart rate, thermoregulation. So it’s part of Animal Physiology

    … the behavior generating system and as such part of what makes animals distinct from plants – Animal Behavior – also a discipline that shares in the Neuroscience pot. And for the same reasons obviously it is also part of Psychology, but that only focuses on a single species that’s actually hard to probe with neuroscientific methods. In extention you could say it’s also part of evolutionary biology, ecology, and sociology. (sociobiology???! :O)

    … an organ that computes information and does in principle everything computing machines would do, from sensory input analysis to motor output control, etc etc I won’t explain how different fields of computational sciences and engineers come to join in on the neuroscience thing.

    The way I personally got interested into Neuroscience leaves no doubt it’s a biological discipline.

    I guess the first question to answer here is: what do you mean with ‘basic’. From the natural science perspective it’s the next level of complication, where ‘meta-effects’ ’emerge’ and stuff like this. But computational science doesn’t fit here at all, because computational science is not bound to the physical world – like math.

    If you want to make neuroscience only about the computations (which I have no problem with, I just think its not how many neuroscientists view it), then the basis to neuroscience is computational/informational science and thus math, and it’s cousin is electronic engineering and mechatronics, things like that. I don’t think there is a mysterious nothing between the biological part and the computational part.

    Overall, neuroscience is a bunch of people from different backgrounds that happen to work on the nervous system for whatever reason. On twitter somebody called it ‘not a discipline’ and another added ‘it’s a lifestyle’.

    In the end the categorization of scientific disciplines and fields are often more about the underlying social structure within the academic world than about ‘reality’.

  • Roger

    Good point. That’s why we need systems neuroscience, studying how information is processed in the brain.

  • Adam J Calhoun

    Although we use the term ‘neuroscience’ as though it refers to one coherent discipline, the problem here is that it does not. If you were to pick a neuroscientist at random and ask: “what does your field study?” you will not get the same answer two times in a row.

    Neural development? Molecular pathways? Cognition? Visual processing? Are these the same field? Or different fields that have been given the same name? When I listen to many molecular neuroscience lectures (especially in development), I have not the slightest clue what they are talking about. It is more foreign to me than economics or ecology. When I hear people arguing about cognition – “representation”?! – I don’t have a clue what they are talking about.

    When you say, synapsis and blood flow aren’t helping us understand the brain per se, you mean it is not helping YOU understand what YOU are interested in. It is helping ME learn a LOT about the brain! But we are interested in very different things.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Fair point!

      Maybe instead of “brain per se” I should have said “the most complex functions of the brain.”

      Incidentally my own research is on biological aspects of the brain. So this post is not written by some computational theorist trying to bash neuro-biologists, it’s a neuro-biologist’s angst.

  • drturi

    These could be the bones of John the Baptist! And how those can help your own bones? Read more from

  • drturi

    Neuroscience need to acknowledge UCI “Unique Celestial Identity” or the spiritual DNA of every human beings –

    • pip010

      thats the last thing science needs, more pseudo-science:

      “Like the physical complexity of DNA, the human spiritual “DNA” derive from his own unique celestial Identity or an inherited karmic cosmic make up. Based upon the soul’s age * experiences from previous past-lives, the Celestial make up between a mother and her child (or anyone of your family members for that matter) is totally different than your own. This can easily be assimilated / understood by building cosmic consciousness through mastering the art of Astropsychology.”

      this all can be understood by simply accounting for context and experience and NO it does not involve some celestial bodies billions of light years away, how is that any different than astrology, numerology etc. ?

      and NO people are neither born nor die equal, but rather they have common/equal needs!

      also why humans are treated special? why fish considered having no soul? because it cannot scream and make face expressions?

  • drturi

    There is a big difference between education and intelligence… Read more from

  • Guest

    Neuroscience need to acknowledge the UCI or the spiritual DNA of every human beings – RTpls

  • Harrison

    Theres an interesting interview with Chomsky where he touches on some of this, it was a core rationale for cogntive science in the first place. I wonder if the branch should be between biology and neuroscience, or between neuroscience and psychology.. It seems like while we can describe action potentials well metabolically, and we discovering many of the mechanisms how networks can develop, we have a difficult time describing how these mechanisms lead to complex behaviours.

    “There are all kind of ways in which natural law imposes channels within which selection can take place, and some things can happen and other things don’t happen. Plenty of things that go on in the biology in organisms aren’t like this. So take the first step, meiosis. Why do cells split into spheres and not cubes? It’s not random mutation and natural selection; it’s a law of physics. There’s no reason to think that laws of physics stop there, they work all the way through.”

    • Neuroskeptic

      That’s an interesting point about whether the “mystery box” should be above neuroscience rather than below neuroscience.

      To put it above neuroscience, however, would be to create a gulf (or at least another level of explanation) between neuroscience and psychology, whereas this doesn’t seem viable to me. It seems to me that if we could understand the brain completely, then we would understand psychology (maybe not completely, but fairly close.) But the difficulty is in understanding the brain.

      • feloniousgrammar

        Aaand, then there’s culture. Aren’t there psychologies?

  • tim faber

    Isn’t this related to the Leibniz’ gap? Given that neuroscience is concerned with psychology level explanations (behavior, thoughts) they are ‘about’ something and focussing in on the neurobiological level will (perhaps) never get us closer explaining how synapses relate to symbols or thoughts.

  • Pablo Currea

    Studying the biology of the brain (physical) is not a lost hope because it defines the limitations of the mind (metaphysical), much like hardware science helps define the computational limits of software. These limitations are crucial in deducing and inferring which questions to ask about the mind. In effect, there’s no use studying the flight behavior of pigs if we know they can’t physically fly. Likewise, there is a dynamic feedback between the physical and metaphysical models, such that the limitations defined by biology or hardware science motivate invention and discovery in neuroscience/psychology and software science. For instance, the limits of computing power motivate the creation and extensive study of more efficient and clean algorithms. So the referral to physical models of the universe to understand metaphysical concepts like computation, cognition, or should not be a worrying thought. Instead, we should embrace these alternative worldviews and try to better understand how they work together.

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  • Francisco Boni Neto

    Some people would disagree with the claim that even mathematics is independent of physics, but that mathematics is a branch of physics: “Is mathematics like physics?

    Mathematics and PhysicsThe traditional view is that mathematics and physics are quite different. Physics describes the universe and depends on experiment and observation. The particular laws that govern our universe—whether Newton’s laws of motion or the Standard Model of particle physics—must be determined empirically and then asserted like axioms that cannot be logically proved, merely verified.

    Mathematics, in contrast, is somehow independent of the universe. Results and theorems, such as the properties of the integers and real numbers, do not depend in any way on the particular nature of reality in which we find ourselves. Mathematical truths would be true in any universe.

    Yet both fields are similar. In physics, and indeed in science generally, scientists compress their experimental observations into scientific laws. They then show how their observations can be deduced from these laws. In mathematics, too, something like this happens—mathematicians compress their computational experiments into mathematical axioms, and they then show how to deduce theorems from these axioms.Chaitin’s question: Is mathematics like physics?”(”

    See Constructor Theory, by D. Deutsch

  • JR

    To add 2 cents to the discussion, I think there is a growing view in the philosophy of science to consider scientific disciplines as different modeling approach to the world. These disciplines have contact surfaces (such as physics and chemistry), but do not form a chain. While all these disciplines are naturalistic, they aim at creating simplified models of the world. And as each of these models is necessarily wrong, neither could or aims at scaling up to all scientific disciplines.

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  • pip010

    As long you can discriminate between states you are good to go :)
    We know first computers are mechanical and I can easily think of a computer based on water pipes and not wires and not neurons :)

  • kkk

    Its complicated



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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