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Okay for its time, but...
on October 22, 2003
I don't think much of personological/subjective explanations of science, such as Kuhn's and Polanyi's, but I think their views should be heard and considered nevertheless. Western writers seem to have an odd fascination with this sort of approach, for reasons that are understandable historically but that I believe are still untenable, most of which is related to the west's obsession with the individual ego and individual consciousness and with the phenomenological and existential approaches to reality that grew out of that.
While I respect Polanyi as a scientist (he was a noted physical chemist), unfortunately I think he's pretty much gone off the deep end in terms of his subjectivistic interpretation of scientific method and of the work of the scientist, which amounts to a form of neo-Kantianism.
The first problem I have with this is that by making the human mind the final arbiter of all knowledge and sense data, a systematic ghost of an illusion pervades Polanyi's, and indeed, all Kantian theories, because there is no strong connection to external reality anymore. While I would agree with Polanyi in regard to Kant's basic thesis, that the mind is actively involved in organizing the data of the senses, and that ideas about the external world could not exist unless there were corresponding mental capabilities and constucts to match, this idea, although fine for its day, really doesn't buy you much anymore in my opinion. This is for two reasons, which is the problem of illusionism which I just mentioned, and the second is the approach that has now emerged from the last 75 years of work in neurobiology and the brain sciences, of which these writers seem blissfully unaware.
Although we still have a lot to learn, the picture that has emerged so far is both fascinating and impressive. For example, there are 60 trillion cells in a human brain organized into 14,000 major and minor brain centers, and they are all networked together. Each individual neuron has between 3,000 and 100,000 connections with other neurons, producing a neural web of unbelievable complexity.
Most sensory neurons are devoted to using feature-detecting algorithms that require advanced calculus to understand, as David Marr has shown. For example, to mention just a few of his important ideas, Marr's demonstrations that retinal receptive field geometry could be derived by Fourier transformation of spatial frequency sensitivity data, that edges and contours could be detected by finding zero crossings in the light gradient by taking the Laplacian or second directional derivative, that excitatory and inhibitory receptive fields could be constructed from "DOG" functions (the difference of two Gaussians), and that the visual system used a two-dimensional convolution integral with a Gaussian prefilter as an operator for bandwidth optimation on the retinal light distribution, showed that the level of mathematical sophistication as well as just brute computational power that is being devoted to sensory information processing is beyond anything we could have imagined.
Since Marr's time, there has been further progress in this area, such as the Bela Julesz's demonstrations that the visual system can extract and compute binocular disparity cues point-by-point for depth information from abstract, non-representational pictures such as random-dot stereograms. There is also the extension of Marr's ideas about monochromatic edge detection into color edge detection, the mathematical theories of nonlinear visual field distortions present in optical illusions, and many other areas.
Finally, consciousness itself may yield to research on the brain. In the last few years, consciousness has been shown to be composed of many different separate mechanisms in the brain that are being coordinated in time in order for consciousness to occur. It isn't a single process or central program that runs in the brain, nor is there a "master" brain center that one can point to where it can be said that consciousness resides, contrary to classical philosophical models which regarded it as unitary and indivisible.
Hence, there is very little reason anymore to insist on the fundamental subjectivity of perception in the Kantian sense. It is true that there are visual illusions at the higher levels of sensory perception, but those are now regarded as special cases, and they are being shown to be explainable in terms of mathematical visual field-distortion theories of these mechanisms that can be quantified just like the basic sensory processes, as I mentioned above.
Another reason neo-Kantian theories don't buy you much is to consider the work of cognitive psychologists and psychometricians like J.P. Guilford. Guilford has evidence for 120 different, discrete mental abilities. We have only just started to find out how all these areas and abilities actually work, but the resulting theories will far surpass in detail and complexity the simplistic philosophical generalizations of previous centuries about how knowledge is acquired and ideas are formed.
The bottom line at this point is that classical ideas like Kant's really aren't wrong, but they are like what classical Newtonian physics was after Einstein, correct as far as it goes, but just a piece of a much more profound, bigger picture. And the rest of that picture will be filled in by work in neurobiology and cognitive psychology, not by further vague philosophical speculation, which can only propose the most general explanations about these epistemological questions, rather than demonstrate in detail how the mind and the brain actually perceive and extract information from reality and then use the information from sense data to generate ideas about the real world.