What’s the biggest philosophical difference between neuroscientists and physicists?* I think neuroscientists are more averse to discussions of mystery and the limits of knowledge. They’ve spent so much time convincing the public that there is no soul – the ghost is just a side-effect of our vibrating machinery – that they are unwilling to let some immaterial presence back in.
Physicists, on the other hand, strike me as much more willing to confess their ignorance. Perhaps this epistemic modesty is just a result of time: physics is a much older field than neuroscience. Perhaps it’s just a result of the strange discoveries of the 20th century: the multiple dimensions of string theory, the invisibility of dark matter, the stubborn chasm separating Einstein and quantum mechanics. Or perhaps it’s simply a result of temperment. Perhaps physicists are simply more prone to philosophizing, more willing to ponder the metaphysical implications of their physical equations.
Take, for example, this paragraph from a recent article on dark matter:
But now has come the metaphorical morning after, and with it a sobering realization: Maybe the universe isn’t simple enough for dummies like us humans. Maybe it’s not just our powers of perception that aren’t up to the task but also our powers of conception. Extraordinary claims like the dawn of a new universe might require extraordinary evidence, but what if that evidence has to be literally beyond the ordinary? Astronomers now realize that dark matter probably involves matter that is nonbaryonic. And whatever it is that dark energy involves, we know it’s not “normal,” either. In that case, maybe this next round of evidence will have to be not only beyond anything we know but also beyond anything we know how to know. hat possibility always gnaws at scientists — what Perlmutter calls “that sense of tentativeness, that we have gotten so far based on so little.” Cosmologists in particular have had to confront that possibility throughout the birth of their science.
In my experience, neuroscientists are much less likely than physicists to indulge in these sorts of mysterian musings. They are much less likely to concede that some questions are beyond the bounds of human knowledge. It’s only a matter of time, neuroscientists assure us, until consciousness is solved, and our subjective experience is reduced into a few neural networks in the PFC.
Is this neuroscientific confidence justified? Or is it just the brash braggadocio of a young science? Why do we have more faith in our microscopes than in our telescopes?
*Pardon the gross generalizations. I do realize that both fields encompass a vast range of researchers and types of inquiry. I’m just hoping to spur a discussion.