|Rajesh Kasturirangan||Nov 3, 2011|
According to the cognoscenti biology is the science of the 21st century just as physics was the science of the 20th. Within biology itself, neuroscience is rising fast and becoming the go-to science. Donors, funding agencies and newspapers seem to agree. Even science fiction movies have shifted from space exploration, i.e., Star Wars and Star Trek to the Matrix and Inception a.k.a “its all in your head.” Another way to put it is that we are slowly shifting from outer space to inner space.
However, our conceptual categories are still stuck in physics. Biology as practiced by biologists is an uber materialistic science in the sense that most biologists view matter in 17th century terms — A pushes B, B pushes C and the whole thing hums like a gigantic clock in the palace of Versailles. This hyper mechanical mode of description is inadequate for understanding the life world of any creature. Thinkers like Uexkull and Goldstein have resisted the mechanical approach to biology, but the smart money is against them.
I think that any purely scientific approach to living systems is bound to fail: either by succeeding in removing any trace of the organism from life or by running into conceptual problems like the hard problem of consciousness. What we need is a hybrid discipline, one that studies living beings but as much with the tools of the humanities as the tools of the natural sciences. Let us call the marriage of the sciences and the humanities the “organities.” Of the various natural sciences, aspects of cognitive science such as embodied cognition are probably closest to the organities. While it is increasingly the case that humanities people are embracing the language of biology and cognition, the opposite also needs to happen; without a genuine two-way collaboration progress will stall sooner rather than later.