When we bear in mind, as we may so profitably do, the salutary and powerful influence which critical thought and writing have had upon the development of literature, and recall the stature of some of the figures who had been both outstanding critics and creative writers in literary history, it is with a strong sense of contrast that we recognize how rarely we meet the critical in the literature of science, and how minor a role it plays in our time.I suspect that more than one reader here may agree that now over half a century later the situation still leaves much to be desired, if anyone has ever seen the gallery of brain scans that adorn the poster presentations at annual conferences of the Society for Neuroscience. As Walshe noted: "For new facts, or what claim to be such, the editor of the scientific journal has an insatiable appetite, but to anything in the nature of critical writing, he is often found to be acutely allergic, and at the writer thereof he instinctively looks askance (p. viii)" So criticism is by no means welcome in the field, even if it is badly needed, and should rightly be seen as integral to the scientific method, rather than as something external to it, as Walshe maintained:
In any case, we may well ask ourselves whether, despite the many and obvious differences between literature and science, it can be altogether wholesome to find that the unresting collection of new facts in science is to so relatively slight a degree accompanied, or illuminated, by the critical assessment and synthesis of all this new information, or at least by some deliberate search after synthesis. Here, surely, integration is not keeping pace with differentiation (pp. vii-viii).
Facts, after all, are not science but only the raw material of that ordered knowledge which is science, and in the ordering of facts, in the capacity to choose the significant amongst them, to apply the inductive process to them and to make those syntheses which are the natural starting points for further planned experiment and observation, there also we find the highest role of the trained critical faculty. Discrimination of true from false depends upon a practiced faculty of criticism, and upon a firm grasp of the rules of evidence (ibid.)It interesting, too, that Walshe associates critical thinking with literary criticism, rather than being one of the primary roles of philosophy, which his statements seem to imply is not part of scientific education or the practice of science itself as a discipline, but must be cultivated by the individual himself. Walshe observes: "[T]here is not a little in our literature that is inaccurate, slovenly and redundant, and, after all, our literature is but the expression of our thinking," and referring to a critical paper by Lashley and Clark on cortical cytoarchitectonics, he comments:
[T]his body of knowledge is to a grave degree illusory in its apparent precision, is based upon the study of an inadequate number of samples by methods which lack any constant standards of observation and result in conflicts of statement that have gone far too long uncriticised, even, indeed, unnoticed by workers in the field. Cortical cytoarchitectonics may not unfarily be said to have reached a degree of pseudo-precision and unreality unprecedented in neurological science (p. xif)
Given the example of brain mapping Walshe mentions, which I quoted in previous comments, one cannot help wonder if conditions since he wrote his book have really changed significantly, if one juxtaposes the following remarks with those of Hubel and Wiesel which I also quoted:
In certain other problems that have confronted the neurologist it is rather naivety than manifest inaccuracy and slovenliness that our thought and literature from time to time have displayed. For example, the hypothesis that consciousness is to be "located" in the hypothalamus reveals a crude conception of this function that might almost have derived from the animistic mythology of some savage tribe. It appears that the word "consciousness" has but to be uttered, read or heard for us to find ourselves irresistibly entertaining the illusion that some perfectly simple and unitary state is involved. This is at once dubbed an "entity" which we are impelled to "locate" tidily and compactly within some easily definable structure in the brain. In this facile process of anatomizing an abstraction, the hypothalamus finds itself the somewhat unpromising site of this profoundly complex phenomenon, and also the ark within which "centres" of sleep and of wakefulness have been reverently deposited. (p. xii)Further bemoaning this state of affairs in terms of the "mysterious viability of the false," "repositories of obsolete lumber," "facile allegory," and a "medley of ad hoc hypotheses," Walshe concludes that "[I]t is temping, and a humbling exersise, sometimes to see the humorous side of our interests and activities, and in this mood it is not altogether inapt to say that there are chapters in neurological literature that might justly be styled 'neuromythology'" (p. xiv). But as much as anything, what Walshe has "diagnosed" is just poor or untrained critical reasoning.
That some indeed acknowledge now that there exists something akin to a "Emperor's New Clothes" situation in neuroscience today, there are now commentators who explicitly espouse neurocriticism. Here is an example from a link given on a "Neuroanthropology" blog to a blog entitled "Critique of Neuroscience":
Cornelius Borck, professor for history of medicine and science at Luebeck University, investigated the “neurorevolution” from a historical perspective. The promises for brain researchers were now repeated already for 200 years: Scientists kept repeating over and over again the imminence of a major breakthrough concerning the understanding of human mind, consciousness, and that of mental disorders. By contrast, Borck argued, the “new knowledge” often reproduced what had been known already, referring to the recommendation – recently supported by neuroscience – to teach foreign languages in early childhood. Also the language of brain researchers were noteworthy: Functional magnetic resonance imaging, for example, investigated physiological processes; nevertheless, many studies relying on this method explained their data not in physiological concepts, but in those stemming from everyday life.What strikes me as very curious, too, is how uncritical most of so-called neurophilosophy is of neuroscience!