Neuroscience and the theory of the unity of knowledge

What is needed is a unified theory of knowledge.(89) During the last hundred years, humans have analysed the universe, included themselves, dividing it into pieces. Every group of scientists in every discipline with their available tools have analysed pieces of their field of study by dividing and subdividing it, and then, at their level of analysis, trying to understand and describe the meaning of that little piece of reality. Today we are becoming aware that because everything is a continuum in the universe we will never reach an acceptable understanding of a single piece of reality since its full meaning only exists when linked to other fragments of that same reality, sometimes to a different level of organization.

At each level of analysis, science in general and neuroscience in particular has created its own tools of analysis which include its specific language of description and understanding. The science of man is like a Tower of Babel with many people working in it and speaking many different languages and therefore not understanding one another. The time has come for neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience to try to make a synthesis and build bridges between levels of analysis, to approximate languages for a better understanding of the unique reality which is man. This is one of the major tasks of neuroscience today.

One of the key events in such an approach is to understand that from one level of analysis to the next, there is a jump which implies the emergence of new properties in the new level that are not reducible to those of the preceding level. These new emergent properties, however, are tightly and completely dependent upon the elements of the preceding level. The most simple and classical example of this is that of water. Water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen atoms. However, we know that oxygen by itself and hydrogen by itself are not water. That particular molecule, called water, with all its peculiar characteristics and inherent properties, which are different from those of its atomic components, oxygen and hydrogen, are acquired when a particular link between the atoms of oxygen and hydrogen is formed. We know that the laws governing the molecule of water are different from those governing the atoms of oxygen and hydrogen. We also know that the properties of water are not reducible to those of hydrogen and oxygen when separated. But when oxygen and hydrogen are linked together, an emergent new thing, the molecule of water, appears, and with it the new laws governing it.

In neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience considerable effort is devoted to sewing together the different levels of analysis—from genes, molecules, organelles, microcircuits, neuronal compartments, nerve cells, specific regions, and distributed systems up to performance, mental operations, and cognitive systems. A good example of such effort is the human brain project which started in the 1980s. In time, this work will provide a comparison of data obtained through different methodologies at different levels of analysis, and eventually will throw light on complex cognitive processes from their most basic building blocks—molecules, cells, and circuits.

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