Jul 13, 2012

No theory - no money!

A neuroscientist I was talking to recently complained that the Higgs-research,even the Neutrino-fluke at CERN is getting humungous funding while neuroscience is struggling for support at a much more modest level. This, despite the undisputed fact that understanding our brain, and ultimately ourselves, is the most exciting challenge around.
Henry Markram of EPFL in Switzerland  is one of the guys aiming for big, big funding to simulate the complete brain. After founding the brain institute and developing methods to analyze and then reconstruct elements of the brain in a supercomputer he now applies for 1.5 Billion Euro in EU-funding for the 'flagship-projects' of Blue Brain -and many believe his project is simply too big to fail. Some call the project daring, others audacious. It is one of the so very few really expensive life-science endeavours. Why aren't there more like that around? Why do we seem to accept the bills for monstrous physics experiments more easily?
Is what Markram and friends are doing so different from the ventures of high energy physics where billions are spent to let particles collide and smash them to smithereens? Are those scientists all just crazy?
Maybe they are.
But there is one difference between accelerator experiments and projects like Blue Brain:
The particle folks have a theory. They have a pretty good working theory that helped explain a vast amount of observations - and more important than that: the theory allows for verifiable (or falsifiable) predictions. One of the predictions is the existence of a Higgs-Boson. Whatever that particle is or means to physicists, it is a predicted particle with properties that can in principle be measured. It is possible to firmly argue for funding.
I fail to see such a theory in 'consciousness'-research or in brain-modeling. Does anybody have a theory about what consciouness is? Not just a hypothesis, not a vision - I mean: a theory. If there was a theory, there would be the possibility to prove or disprove it.
Up to now *all* experiments on consciousness or the self depend on a human being *reporting* some internal states of herself. Today you could not experimentally verify whether or not your coworker, your cat, your computer has an individual self - if they don't communicate with you about it.
Bluntly, that is not science.

6 comments:

Rob said...

is it possible to have a theory no one can come up with on as yet. I think like this ... what am i ? A concious life form not like animals but intelligent. My body is made of the stuff of the Universe. The Universe grows of itself from the big bang creating itself. Ignoring how the Universe got here i say the Universe is creating itself so i must be created.Evolution is survival of the fittest and this does not apply to the Universe.Why should it apply to me? Conciousness is not explained by evolution man finds it a mystery. When we have a mystery we have an answer to it somewhere.I think conciousness is the reason the Universe came about and why we are here. Something Intelligent is creating more intelligence and when we see billions of Galaxies we see the purpose of our design is from this will.Why is the Universe so damn big? Whats the point? Also other life has to be out there otherwise intelligence of design is wasting space and time.You ask for a theory but the answer is a mystery. When will we know the answer is the question.We can only think of the answers that really count when we come to the end of our discoveries. Because we are at the pinnacle were we can go no more. Now we can only invent for the benefit of mankind.

Satyanarayana Naik Naik said...

NAIK SAYS - Well said- turn to Upanishads for clues and answers. Conscious is universal, it should be not limited to this galaxy and therefore must be infinite in its existence in the matter, space or the so called god particle. Existence comes due to attraction of opposite energies. There must be a reason for this attraction of energies. Then there must be conscious in those energies. Well the 5th dimension conscious theories goes on to till the mind perceives it at its three dimensional level - July 23 2012 22:56 Hyderabad, India

Carsten Hucho said...

Ladies, gentlemen.
I thank you so much for your thoughts. I would ask you to consider, however, to approach scientific questions with scientific rigor and to approach questions of belief with adequate language. A mixup of 'feel, believe, infer, chatter' with a simulation or imitation of scientific terms - many of which you clearly have no understanding of - is of no use, if not for pure self-entertainment.
Please look into the mirror and ask yourself why it appears necessary for you to use a scientific debate as pretext to spill stultifying misappropriations of scientific terms.
This article asked for *theories* of consciousness - not for touchy-feely-opinions. We have enough of that. Opposite energies attract? Really? Do you have a clue what you are talking about? Nope, opposite energies do not attract. Energies do not attract at all. The fifth dimension? Try to find your path in 3 as a start.
'God particle' is a cool word for religioesque party-chatter, I know. But do you know where that phrase comes from?
No, you don't.
You see you are getting my pulse up. Not enough that you feel the urge to display complete ignorance of the field, approach or meaning of science. You also vulgarize religion and belief.
What for?
It looks extremely narcissistic and egocentric to me.

Anonymous said...

What? Simulating a brain does not require only the understanding of consciousness. There's much that *is* understood and much more that will be learned: the visual system, motor control, etc.

As for theory and do-ability: IBM Research actually won a Gordon Bell prize a few years ago for its modeling of the cat brains, focusing on the visual system.

Carsten Hucho said...

I believe this fits into the wider debate over a possible 'paradigm shift' to Big Data.
Could it be that correlation too often is taken as a substitute for understanding? Producing big dataessentially means projecting observables onto another set of observables... possibly making the problem more accessible to scientific modelling. But there is this danger that modelling is reduced to describing.

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