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Neurobiological revisionism

GREGORY C.O'KELLY gokelly at delphi.com
Sat Mar 26 23:44:53 EST 1994

Physics and Biology

	From the 17th century to the present living things have been seen as
clever machines.  Mental things and consciousness, for most, following
Descartes, were seen as evidence of the 'ghost in the machine' that could
only be found in human beings.  In the attempt to escape this sort of vital-
ism and to appeal to just 'natural' things, the more scientifically minded
appealed to and tried to explain the functioning of the nervous system and
the 'mind' in terms of mechanisms.  There arose the idea that somehow the
body was like a watch, with the nervous system a part.  And through evol-
ution the watch became more and more intricate until finally, in the case
of the human being, the watch was so convoluted that a whole new quality
emerged, the existence of consciousness and the world of the mind.  The
operant phrase was that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.
	The phrase was easily understood because so commonsensical.  Yet it
did not stand up to scrutiny if rigorously considered; its meaning became
more an ineffable intuition if one asked what was meant by the sum of the
parts of a watch, and in what way this sum could be compared to the watch
so that the speaker could say that the watch was 'greater' than the sum.
	Vitalist mechanists and natural mechanists agreed on the notion of
mechanism, and how it was the epitome of scientificity since Newton.  
There were disputes were biological things left off and chemical things 
began that are carried on to this day.  But the mechanism of Newton was
terribly inadequate for accounting for such things as light, magnetism, and
electricity.  Hans Oersted's noticing of the movement of a compass needle
close to a wire in which electricity flowed mystified the mechanists.  
Faraday spoke of 'lines of force' in the 1830's, and Clerk Maxwell described
them mathematically in the mid 1870's.
	Only with the advent of the molecular and particle physics of the 
1890's did the Newtonian world of mechanism begin to be threatened.  The
Quanta of Max Planck were articulated by Rutherford and Bohr in what
became known as 'quantum mechanics'.  This name was a result of seeing
the electron as a particle similar to a planet in orbit around a sun, and 
therefore understandable in terms similar to the Classical Mechanism of
Newton in which there was gravity and hard bodies, point masses, which
had momentum and velocity.  But this way of viewing the electron was
replaced in the and 40's by people like Richard Feynman, Shin'ichiro
and Julian Schwinger who offered instead 'quantum electrodynamics'.
	In the case of quantum electrodynamics, the second of four of the
fundamental forces of nature was elucidated.  The forces were: gravity,
electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force.  Newton's world
and the world of the biologist was the world of gravity.  The world of the
chemist, the electrician, and the broadcaster was the world of gravity
and electromagnetism.
	Oddly enough, the world of the biochemist remained the Newtonian
world, with biochemists in search of mechanisms just like physiologists.
The role of electrical charge was seen as perhaps playing a part in the
functioning of cells (internally and externally), but in no way being per-
tinent to behavior, though muscle contraction involved chemical function-
ing of the body.  Even so, the electrical charge that was involved in 
inter and intra cellular functioning was seen as the charge on atoms and
molecules, on ions, and as so situated, this electrical charge was not seen
as having any influence on the movement of the molecules themselves, or
the cells in which or around which they were situated.  Cells, like miniscule
homunculi, communicated with another, identified other cells, and con-
tained tiny 'factories' in which proteins were manufactured.
	All 'activity' both intracellularly and extracellularly was the result
of mysterious changes in membrane permeabilities and the opening and
closing of ion channels.  When asked how one goes from this level to the
level of a creature that evolves and behaves, the biochemist shrugs and 
says, "The whole is somehow greater than the sum of the parts; it's poorly
understood."  The implication if that there is some level at which cellular
functioning and chemical functioning leave the world of gravity/electro-
magnetism and enter the world at which only gravity and fluid dynamics
are pertinent, and at this level one finds living creatures and 'ghosts' in 
	It is the thesis of the paper "Biology, Bioelectricity, and the Ner-
vous System" that the behavior of living things and the functioning of the
nervous system of those living things also are susceptible to events in the
world of gravity/electromagnetism.  And only after one is able to under-
stand bioelectricity in terms of electron behavior of direct currents rather
than some hypothesized 'saltatory conduction' will one be able to under-
stand how CNS functioning can not only be simulated, but stimulated in such
a way that motor and sensory functioning can be restored and enhanced.
The issues in question are discussed in the above mentioned paper.  If you
would like a copy, contact me, gokelly at delphi.com, and give me your 
  If you have questions about these issues, feel free to ask about them.

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