Tuesday, June 1, 2010

State-of-the-Art Neuroscience, About Two Dozen Centuries Back

When it comes to how the universe works, what we know, what we don't know, and what we think we know that just ain't so, has changed quite a lot since information technology made it possible to 'freeze' our thoughts in somewhat permanent form. That's a span of around 5,000 years now. (August 3, 2009, January 4, 2010)

Not that everybody wrote down what they thought. Take Aristotle, son of Nichomachus, for example. He lived almost two dozen centuries ago: from about 384 to 322 BC. These days someone in his position probably specialize by studying some narrow topic. Aristotle's interests included aesthetics, biology, ethics, government, logic, morality, physics, and poetry. ("Aristotole," The Literature Network) Think Leonardo DaVinci in a chlamys.

At least some of Aristotle's books are thought to have been written by his students, from lecture notes. He wouldn't be the first professor who, although brilliant, wasn't quite up to speed on the latest information technology.

On the other hand, I've run into enough sources with phrases like "Aristotle's writings" to think that the ancient genius wrote at least some of his thoughts down, himself.

What We Know, What We Think We Know

It's a little late to have Aristotle take a standardized intelligent test, but there doesn't seem to be much doubt that he was a very smart man. He's credited with getting quite a bit of Western civilization's intellectual life started.

And he seems to have had the good sense to find out what things looked and felt like, before deciding how they worked.

Maybe you've heard that Aristotle thought the brain was a sort of radiator. That's so - sort of - although his analysis of that 'marrow' we keep in our heads was a little more complicated than that.

Considering what he had to work with, I think Aristotle did a pretty good job of analyzing the brain's function. He was wrong, but at least his model was internally consistent.

One of the facts he got right was that the brain has no sense of touch - something that makes in possible for neurosurgeons to operate on the brain of a conscious patient. On the other hand, Aristotle used that fact as a proof of what turned out to be a really wrong idea. Here's part of what Aristotle had to say about the brain:
"...That it has no continuity with the organs of sense is plain from simple inspection, and is still more clearly shown by the fact, that, when it is touched, no sensation is produced; in which respect it resembles the blood of animals and their excrement...."
Don't laugh. Aristotle wasn't stupid - but he was working near the start of Western civilization's efforts to sort out how the universe works.

Two dozen centuries from now, some of what's in your high school science textbook, and what's coming out of CERN, may look a trifle daft, too.

Science and the Speculative Fiction Writer

There's a broad range of approaches to incorporating 'real' science into speculative fiction - from 'science? what science?' to old-school 'hard' science fiction, where the authors seemed more interested in practical applications of what was in the latest science quarterly, than delving into empires of the mind.

I'd just as soon write stories with more-or-less 'real' science: but I like full-bore fantasy, too. As far as I'm concerned, it's 'author's choice,' an aesthetic preference.

That said, the example of Aristotle may give me a lot more wiggle room for my 'real' science, than you might think.

There's an excerpt from one of Aristotle's books at the end of this post, a sort of introduction to his discussion of the brain. His analysis was wrong - but quite a few of his supporting facts were spot-on.

The lesson here, I think, is that someone who's making up 'future science' has a lot of room for the imagination to roam. Me? I'm going to make an effort to see to it that the 'future science' doesn't depend on what we can observe being different. In other words, if rocks fall up in the 36th century: there better be a really good explanation for why they don't now.

Back to Aristotle. His analysis was wrong - but not as much as it may seem. The brain looks like marrow, it feels cold, and it really doesn't have a sense of touch - it so it won't respond when prodded. At least, not in a way that Aristotle - or whoever supplied him with his data - could have observed.

Here's that excerpt:
"Parts of Animals Book II – (Brain)"
Aristotle (English translation), via Alexandra Cuffel (Medieval History), Macalester College

"From the marrow we pass on in natural sequence to the brain. For there are many who think that the brain itself consists of marrow, and that it forms the commencement of that substance, because they see that the spinal marrow is continuous with it. In reality the two may be said to be utterly opposite to each other in character. For of all the parts of the parts of the body there is none so cold as the brain;whereas the marrow is of a hot nature, as is plainly shown by its fat and greasy character. Indeed this is the very reason why the brain and spinal marrow are continuous with each other. For, wherever the action of any part is in excess nature so contrives as to set by it another part with an excess of contrary action, so that the excesses of the two may counterbalance each other. Now that the marrow is hot is clearly shown by many indications The coldness of the brain is also manifest enough even to the touch; and, secondly, of all the fluid parts of the body it is the driest and the one that has the least blood; for in fact it gas no blood at all in its proper substance. Thus brain is not residual matter, nor yet is it one of the parts which are continuous with each but it has a character peculiar to itself, as might indeed be expected. That it has no continuity with the organs of sense is plain from simple inspection, and is still more clearly shown by the fact, that, when it is touched, no sensation is produced; in which respect it resembles the blood of animals and their excrement. The purpose of its presence in animals is no less than the preservation of the whole body. For some writers assert that the soul is fire or some such force. This, however, is but a crude assertion; and it would perhaps be better to say that the soul is incorporate in some substance of a fiery character. The reason for this being so is that of all substances there is none so suitable for ministering to the operations of the soul as that which is possessed of heat. For nutrition and the imparting of motion are offices of the soul, and it is by heat that these are most readily a acted. To say then that the soul is fire is much the same thing as to confound the auger or the saw with the carpenter or his craft, simply because the work is done when the two are near one another...."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment!

Privacy Policy

Nothing spooky here.

These days it's important to have a "privacy policy" available: so here's mine.

I do not collect information on individuals visiting this blog. If you leave a comment, I'll read what you wrote: but I don't keep a record of comments, apart from what Blogger displays. (In other words, the only record of what you write or who you are will be what people see at the bottom of the post.)

I do collect information about how many hits this blog gets, where they come from, and some technical information. I use the WebSTAT service for this purpose - and all that shows is which ISP you use, and where it's located.

You can stop most of Webstat's data gathering by disabling cookies in your browser. I don't know why you would, but some folks do.

I'm also an AdSense affiliate, so Google collects information on what I've written in each post: but that's mostly my problem.

I'm also considering starting an affiliate relationship with DAZ Productions. You should be able to keep DAZ and Commission Junction, their provider of affiliate services, from collecting information by - again - disabling cookies in your browser.

And you can keep DAZ Productions from finding out anything about you, by not buying any of their products.

Again, I don't know why you would: but some folks do.

Or, rather, don't.