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Jeffrey Onans

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We are seeing a change in scientific thinking from the reductionist to a holistic paradigm

Developments in epigenetics and neuro-plasticity are challenging a purely mechanistic paradigm for the scientific understanding of nature. The influence of "environment", understood in both physical and social/emotional terms, on the somatic expression (e.g. in how genotype relates to phenotype or how intellectual processing effects neurology) appears to admit the possibility of non-physical influences as determinators of physical outcomes. This in turn begs the question of the nature of information and its interaction with physical systems. Gregory Bateson in his book "Mind and Nature" suggests that this can be understood from a systems perspective however it requires an understanding embedded in the notion of networks and complex interacting positive and negative feedback loops. In short - in a holistic way. Beau Lotto gives a lovely and clear description of science that starts with a question and is necessarily concerned with what we don't know. His intensely practical example, indeed research, could be seen as research into the necessary place of imagination in science. I argue that imagination is the capacity we have to cognitively engage with what we don't know. This calls up Meno's Paradox which must be resolved in any in depth analysis and understanding of science as a practice. Michael Polanyi makes a comprehensive case for the cognitive basis of a meaningful response to this question - a response that effectively describes imagination as a cognitive process. However it, in turn, requires a holistic epistemology as in his words, we "know more than we can say" and accessing the totality of our embedded knowledge resource requires cultivating the capacity to see the whole as a whole not as a series of interrelated parts.


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    May 19 2013: Hello Fritzie thank you for your thought provoking response. Re imagination, I was tying it to holistic thinking by suggesting that it is a necessary cognitive function for that mode. My actual contention, is in the first place, that the reductionist epistemology at the heart of the current paradigm of scientific thinking (and which, by the way, I acknowledge has served us so well) is being challenged and replaced by a holistic one. I pointed to epigenetics and neuroplasticity as frontier fields of study whose implications suggest this phenomenon. (I could have also used quantum physics and relativity but Bohm argues this point so eloquently and so I wanted to introduce some new emerging fields as well to support the claim.) I then secondarily, though no less significantly, proposed that holistic thinking both required and implied the use of imagination. I chose to refer to the epistemologies of both Bateson and Polanyi as support for this point. To respond to your points then: 1. Yes I am distinguishing it from the Romantic notion of the muse (though without wishing to contend the central place in science that they ascribe to imagination) and 2. No I'm not wishing to imply that the idea of recognising the crucial role of imagination in science is at all new. Indeed it is central to my point that it is not but rather it was once fully formally recognised and, when studies are made of the practices of actual scientists performing actual frontier science, imagination is clearly and consistently central to their process. Gerald Holton documents this objectively in his work "The Scientific Imagination". However there has been a historic deliberate, very conscious and powerfully effective denial of the legitimacy of a role for imagination in accepted scientific method. (See Daston L "Fear & Loathing of the Imagination in Science") This denial started in the late 1700's and was more recently fiercely championed by none other than Karl Popper.
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      May 19 2013: I know some people don't think of science as involving imagination, but I believe those who actually practice science have long, long understood this. The same is true of mathematics. Those who talk about these fields without being in the field often have a different view than those in the field.

      Neuroplasticity was first discovered and reported in the 1920s, so I understand that finding is more recent but has long been part of, say, the textbooks used to study neuroscience in medical schools (see Eric Kandel, Principles of Neural Science) and, at least in the US, a subject in teacher training.

      In any case, whether these ideas have been accepted within the field for a century or whether they are new, I agree that the role of imagination in science has long been apparent and is involved in formulation of scientific hypotheses of every kind, whether about complex systems or simple ones..It is what draws people to do research in these fields and what can sustain their interest over a lifetime.

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