How Little We Know About How We Know

This is fascinating:

They found that the brain’s complexity is beyond anything they’d imagined, almost to the point of being beyond belief, says Stephen Smith, a professor of molecular and cellular physiology and senior author of the paper describing the study:

One synapse, by itself, is more like a microprocessor–with both memory-storage and information-processing elements–than a mere on/off switch. In fact, one synapse may contain on the order of 1,000 molecular-scale switches. A single human brain has more switches than all the computers and routers and Internet connections on Earth.

Our understanding will expand, of course, but at each step, there will be another mystery, another surprise at the intricacy of reality. It’s speculative to suggest that, one day, we’ll reach a point at which mathematics simply can’t describe what’s happening and science can’t replicate it, but we’re already able to see, if we allow ourselves to do so, that science can never adequately describe the totality of reality; such an accomplishment is simply not within the scope of its language. Indeed, much of what’s regrettable, even horrific, in recent history has derived from attempts to reduce life to terms that science can accommodate.
Our brains are able to tap into ranges of knowledge that are wholly unscientific, yet no less true or accurate.

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mangeek
mangeek
10 years ago

“one day, we’ll reach a point at which mathematics simply can’t describe what’s happening and science can’t replicate it, but we’re already able to see, if we allow ourselves to do so, that science can never adequately describe the totality of reality” There are two ways to define ‘the totality of reality’. One is to learn all the rules by which the parts operate by, that’s within the realm of science, I believe. The other is to be able to simulate ‘everything’ and be able to scientifically determine the future. The latter just can’t ever happen (light cones prevent it), and any scientist worth his salt knows it. There’s room for free will and God in the universe. My take is a little different than yours. I think that as we learn more and more about the universe, religion is muscled-out of explaining ‘what’ is happening and instead must focus on ‘why’. If anything, the church was overstepping its bounds by asserting truths that lie within the realm of science to determine (is the earth round? Is it the center of the universe? Do animals and plants evolve?). What I don’t understand is the pushback of religion on science. I think it’s pretty clear that science has valid answers for how most things came to be. It’s foolish to assert that the earth is only 5,000 years old, clinging to millenia-old campfire stories instead of focusing on the valid lessons the stories can impart. Science isn’t (and shouldn’t be) trying to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do, or determine ‘right’ vs ‘wrong’, only to inform on those ‘truths’ which can be tested, proven, and sometimes altered. Global warming comes to mind as I write this. I think a lot of folks have taken aim at science over the… Read more »

Justin Katz
10 years ago

Your “two ways” are really just degrees of the same way. What I’m talking about is aspects of reality that science literally cannot touch, but yet are no less real.
A while back, I mentioned that it ought to be less surprising that a particular chemical or electrical impulse in the brain could induce laughter than that a well-chosen word from somebody else could do the same. That’s what I’m getting at.
Science might be able to determine that a human being has a particular feeling because of a certain amount of a particular chemical released at a particular time. That language doesn’t accurately capture the totality of circumstances in which one could state that the person feels “icky” — much less that the person feels like an adolescent boy waking from his first wet dream.
The secularist’s (scientismist’s) response is to reduce the significance of the ickiness (and the cultural markers of a particular kind of ickiness) to nothing more significant than science can describe. That represents a colossal loss, and one that has a very real effect on human society and (therefore) on the physical universe.

mangeek
mangeek
10 years ago

“it ought to be less surprising that a particular chemical or electrical impulse in the brain could induce laughter than that a well-chosen word from somebody else could do the same”
It’s easy to trigger mental states by tinkering with the chemical reactions of the brain. It’s very difficult to understand how and why a properly-executed joke or subtle body language can trigger the same reactions. I’m not content to say ‘women with these measurements get men aroused because that’s just the way it is’, I’d like to know what processes brought our biology and sociology to that conclusion.
“The secularist’s response is to reduce the significance of the ickiness (and the cultural markers of a particular kind of ickiness) to nothing more significant than science can describe.”
I don’t think that describing the internal workings of a combustion engine detracts from the intense sensation of freedom that one gets when they first get on the highway, but it sure does help if you ever break down. If you feel that the field of neurochemistry takes away from the experience of being an emotional creature, perhaps it’s because you’re not compartmentalizing properly. Knowing that you feel as inspired looking at the stars as you do with 20mg of Happytrol HCL doesn’t matter, but understanding how happiness works is a great asset for society as a whole.
Maybe you’re a mechanic who’s decided to just be a driver, and it’s not suiting your natural curiosity very well.

Justin Katz
10 years ago

You’re arguing with me for no reason (except, perhaps, because you’re reading into my commentary a “them” to your “us” that isn’t really there). At no point have I urged the cessation of scientific inquiry or gainsaid its utility.
I’m merely suggesting that modern Western society does not adequately appreciate the limits of science. It would be foolish to deny that a great many people respond to news of neuroscientific findings to be evidence that we’re just blobs of matter reacting to various stimuli. That’s only plausible because those people are taking science to be a full ontological description, with sensations and self-awareness as mere byproducts and accidents.

mangeek
mangeek
10 years ago

“You’re arguing with me for no reason”
Sorry, I’m a bit of a natural antagonist/contrarian. My boss hates it. 🙂
“modern Western society does not adequately appreciate the limits of science.”
Agreed. I actually think a lot of it has to do with the scientific understanding that we’re ‘wired for God’, our brains are designed to seek answers and fill in the rest with faith. With religion on the overall decline here, too many have taken up science as the ‘raw text’ of a new religion, one that’s neither truly ‘scientific’ nor built on thousands of years of important moral lessons.
I used to be the kind of person who thought that it was -all- science, I was never more liberated (in a bad way, e.g. to drink and drug myself into a stupor) nor more depressed in my life. I had an ‘epiphany’ of sorts, where I summed-up the non-impact I would have in the universe as a whole and decided that I ought to make the most of what I can, rather than accept the inevitability of ‘the big crunch’ or ‘heat death’ of the universe as an excuse to toss aside love and living well.
Science shouldn’t take away from the wonders of the universe, and religion shouldn’t stand in the way of science, it should build a moral framework to limit science from the kinds of experiments that trigger ‘icky’ feelings amongst us.

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10 years ago

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9 years ago

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