Saturday, July 11, 2015

1. Notes on the relevance of neurophysiology to human self-knowledge (addressed to David Parker)

Dear David,

I have been inviting Members of the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at Cambridge University to my 'Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy'. Before sending them the invitation, I read the entry of each of them on the departmental website, so as to send my invitation only to those, who might be interested in contemplating the relevance of their work to human self-knowledge.

I have enjoyed the entries very much; it was for me like an investigative journey. To give an example. Andrea Brand investigates 'how stem cells are maintained in a multipotent state and how their progeny differentiate into distinct cellular fates’. She undertakes her investigation as ‘a key step in the therapeutic use of stem cells to repair tissues after damage or disease.’ She approaches this task by ‘investigating the genetic networks that regulate neural stem cells in Drosophila.’ What entitles her to think that her investigation of neural stem cells in Drosophila will be relevant to the therapeutic use of stem cells to repair tissues after damage or disease? Wikipedia helps: ‘it was only recently (the past 15 years or so) that scientists discovered that a basic set of the same proteins and mRNAs are involved in all of embryogenesis. This is one of the reasons that model systems such as the fly (Drosophila melanogaster), the mouse (Muridae), and the leech (Helobdella), can all be used to study embryogenesis and developmental biology relevant to other animals, including humans.’

And so I finally came to your website entry: ‘In order to understand how normal behaviours are generated, and what happens when things go wrong, we need to understand how neurons interact in the networks that process sensory inputs, perform cognitive functions, and program motor outputs.’ You ‘use the locomotor network in the spinal cord of the lamprey as a model vertebrate system to examine general principles of network function’. Am I right to think that just as Andrea Brand presumes that her work on Drosophila will have therapeutic implications for humans, you presume that your work on lamprey will elucidate cognitive functions of networks of cells in human brain?

All this compelled me to interrupt my work on Kant and Aristotle and to return to my ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’, which, enriched by your comments, all those who are interested in the role of neurophysiology in pursuit of self-knowledge could read on my website. In ‘Self-knowledge’ I wrote: ‘Neurophysiology has changed profoundly the framework within which we can best begin our pursuit of self-knowledge. … The forms of objects in the external world that generate visual stimuli are profoundly transformed as they affect the receptors on the retina. What we see is in its totality created by us on the basis of transformations that the oncoming stimuli undergo in the brain. We are the totality of what we experience, always split in our consciousness into ‘me and the outside world’. You  remarked: I am not sure of the split. While we can relate things as internal or external, cant people see themselves as being part of and an actor in the external world, either of themselves or of others? Introspectively this seems true to me. And we can internalise the external world, imaging people, places, situations we or even others have experienced, or never experienced. – Your comment is apposite.

I prefaced the ‘Self-knowledge’ on my website with your words ’I think that debate is what is needed’. In preparation for my ‘Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy’, I will therefore take the liberty of discussing the relevance of neurophysiology to self-knowledge on my blog in a few posts addressed to you.

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