In this wide-ranging book, one of the boldest thinkers in modern neuroscience confronts an ancient philosophical problem: can we know the world as it really is?
Drawing on provocative new findings about the psychophysiology of perception and judgment in both human and nonhuman primates, and also on the cultural history of science, Jean-Pierre Changeux makes a powerful case for the reality of scientific progress and argues that it forms the basis for a coherent and universal theory of human rights. On this view, belief in objective knowledge is not a mere ideological slogan or a naïve confusion; it is a characteristic feature of human cognition throughout evolution, and the scientific method its most sophisticated embodiment. Seeking to reconcile science and humanism, Changeux holds that the capacity to recognize truths that are independent of subjective personal experience constitutes the foundation of a human civil society.
Jean-Pierre Changeux is France’s most famous neuroscientist… In his book The Physiology of Truth, Changeux connects memory to the acquisition of knowledge and the testing of its validity, as is done in science in general.
In The Physiology of Truth, a translation of his L’Homme de vérité, Jean-Pierre Changeux provides an account whereby selection among an initial plethora of possibilities yields those that are true, a process evident both in brain development and in knowledge acquisition. Along the way, he espouses a hopeful naturalism: evolution ensures that our nervous systems aim at representing the truth, and aspects of our culture—notably freedom, communication, and pursuit of the scientific method—can ensure that we as a society have true beliefs… Changeux, a neurobiologist at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, begins by reviewing the philosophical problems and their recalcitrance. He then considers the neurobiology and its complexity and lastly extends his discussion to culture and society… His vision is at once that of the detached scientist and the deeply caring humanist—for him, the two go hand in hand. He believes that applying the standards of the scientific method to society will promote freedom of ideas and individual rights, and that from this a stable consensual agreement on truth can emerge. Let us hope that this attractive vision prevails.
The Physiology of Truth…is not an essay on physiology, epistemology or semantics, but a tour de force covering selected chapters in neuroscience and their philosophical underpinning, colored by the author’s interpretation of the interaction of phylogenesis, ontogenesis and epigenesis. The binding theme is the relationship of knowledge encoded in our brain with the world at large. The theory draws from forty years of research by the author and his colleagues, but as usual, it also rests on the shoulders of giants… The Physiology of Truth is a useful pointer to intellectual repercussions of brain research, as well as the epitome of the ability to bring blessed subjectivity to scientific texts. Many discussions in the book are thought provoking.
[Changeux] thinks it is time that scientists attempted to explain mythic thought, because only by understanding irrational belief can they explain the rational search for truth that grew out of it. An objective knowledge does exist, and our brains are equipped to recognise it. But the quest for it is often biased by political and economic forces, and the editorial decisions of journals which are at the mercy of those forces.
Changeux’s work advances an ‘epigenetic hypothesis’ as a means of explaining the philosophical significance of recent findings in the neurosciences. This is especially noteworthy because the hypothesis offers an evidence-based challenge to two popular ideas: namely, the largely functionalist idea that the brain is nothing more than a sophisticated computer and, alternatively, the nativist idea that the brain is ‘the embodiment of a strictly predetermined genetic inheritance.’ Among Changeux’s many conclusions, two are particularly fascinating: first, that the brain is able to produce objective knowledge—a kind of universal framework of thought—that permits individuals to communicate through language; and secondly, that this fact about the human species may serve as the basis by which humans ultimately save themselves.
Jean-Pierre Changeux is a man of universal mind, at home equally in philosophy, linguistics, social psychology, neuroscience, molecular biology and computer modelling. The Physiology of Truth is a joy to read, a thrilling book, in which we are guided by Changeux’s lucid prose and effortless range of references and perspectives towards what the twenty-first century clearly promises: a radical understanding, in neurophysiological terms, of how perception, exploration, trial and error, cognitive games, and the cultural sharing of language and consciousness can provide us with representations of reality that are both reliable and profound.
Jean-Pierre Changeux has given modern science—and democracy as well—the philosophy they deserve and need. His lucid book explains how the biological revolution has made it possible to understand how language, truth, and morals precipitate from our molecular matrix of genes and gene products. It rescues the secular ideals of reductionist science from a quicksand of arguments from design. Written for scientist and layman alike, The Physiology of Truth places Changeux squarely in the ranks of scientific polymaths who have given lie to the myth of ‘two cultures.’ It’s a spirited work of intellectual synthesis carried off with verve and wit.
In The Physiology of Truth, Jean-Pierre Changeux uses the remarkable progress of neuroscience to outline a personal view of how human beings should relate to their physical and cultural surroundings. This book is a must read for anyone interested in the role that science can play in human flourishing.
One of the great neuroscientists of our day looks anew at age old problems which since Plato have been the purview of philosophers. A must read and deeply moving in its implications.
- 336 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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