What is computational neuroscience? (XV) Feynman and birds

“Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”. This quote is attributed to Richard Feynman, one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century. Many other famous scientists, including Einstein, held the opposite view, but nonetheless it is true that many excellent scientists have very little esteem for philosophy of science or philosophy in general. So it is worthwhile reflecting on this quote.

This quote has been commented by a number of philosophers. Some have argued, for example, that ornithology would actually be quite useful for birds, if only they could understand it – maybe they could use it to cure their avian diseases. This is a funny remark, but presumably quite far from what Feynman meant. So why is ornithology useless to birds? Presumably, what Feynman meant is that birds do not need the intellectual knowledge about how to fly. They can fly because they are birds. They also do not need ornithology to know how to sing and communicate. So the comparison implies that scientists know how to do science, since they are scientists, and this knowledge is not intellectual but rather comes from their practice. It might be interesting to observe after the fact how scientists do science, but it is not useful for scientists, because the practice of science comes before its theory, in the same way as birds knew how to fly before there were ornithologists.

So this criticism of philosophy of science entirely relies on the idea that there is a scientific method that scientists master, without any reflections on this method. On the other hand, this method must be ineffable or at least very difficult to precisely describe, in the same way as we can walk but the intellectual knowledge of how to walk is not so easy to convey. Otherwise philosophy of science would not even exist as a discipline. If the scientific method is not something that you learn in an intellectual way, then it must be like a bodily skill, like flying for a bird. It is also implicit that scientists must agree on a single scientific method. Otherwise they would start arguing about the right way to do science, which is doing philosophy of science.

This consensual way of doing science is what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science”. It is the kind of science that is embedded within a widely accepted paradigm, which does not need to be defended because it is consensual. Normal science is what scientists learn in school. It consists of paradigms that are widely accepted at the time, which are presented as “the scientific truth”. But of course such presentation hides the way these paradigms have come to be accepted, and the fact that different paradigms were widely accepted before. For example, a few hundred years ago, the sun revolved around the Earth. From times to times, science shifts from one paradigm to another one, a process that Kuhn called “revolutionary science”. Both normal science and revolutionary science are important aspects of science. But revolutionary science requires a critical look on the established ways of doing science.

Perhaps Feynman worked at a time when physics was dominated by firmly established paradigms. Einstein, on the other hand, developed his most influential theories at a time when the foundations of physics were disputed, and he was fully aware of the relevance of philosophy of science, and philosophy in general. Could he have developed the theory of relativity without questioning the philosophical prejudices about the nature of time? Here are a few quotes from Einstein that I took from a paper by Howard (“Albert Einstein as a philosopher of science”):

“It has often been said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher. Why then should it not be the right thing for the physicist to let the philosopher do the philosophizing? Such might indeed be the right thing to do at a time when the physicist believes he has at his disposal a rigid system of fundamental concepts and fundamental laws which are so well established that waves of doubt can’t reach them; but it cannot be right at a time when the very foundations of physics itself have become problematic as they are now. [...] Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens. Thus they come to be stamped as “necessities of thought,” “a priori givens,” etc. [...] A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is - in my opinion - the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”

In my opinion, these views fully apply to computational and theoretical neuroscience, for at least two reasons. First, computational neuroscience is a strongly interdisciplinary field, with scientists coming from different backgrounds. Physicists come from a field with strongly established paradigms, but these paradigms are often applied to neuroscience as analogies (for example Hopfield’s spin glass theory of associative memory). Mathematicians come from a non-empirical field, to a field that is in its current state not very mathematical. Physics, mathematics and biology have widely different epistemologies. Anyone working in computational neuroscience will notice that there are strong disagreements on the value of theories, the way to make theories and the articulation between experiments and theory. Second, computational neuroscience, and in fact neuroscience in general, is not a field with undisputed paradigms. There are in fact many different paradigms, which are often only analogies coming from other fields, and there is no accepted consensus about the right level of description, for example.

Computational neuroscience is perhaps the perfect example of a scientific field where it is important for scientists to develop a critical look on the methods of scientific enquiry and on the nature of scientific concepts.

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