Programmatic Phenomena, Hermeneutics, and Neurobiology

  • Gunther S. Stent
Part of the Life Science Monographs book series (LSMO)


Contemporary neurobiology presents a rare case in which philosophical attention might further scientific progress. Semantic confusion about the term “program” has led to the suggestion that genes embody a program for the development of the nervous system. It is unlikely, and perhaps impossible, that the events of neural development are isomorphic with the structure of any program. Development of the nervous system is not a programmatic, but a historical phenomenon—like the development of an ecosystem—in which events follow a well-defined sequence in the absence of any program. The analysis of historical phenomena bears a strong epistemological affinity to the activity of hermeneutics—a term originally applied to the interpretation of sacred texts. To avoid logical dilemma, hermeneutics requires in the interpreter a preunderstanding resulting from experience and intuition. The fact of variation in preunderstanding puts in doubt the attainability of objectively valid explanations, particularly in the “soft” sciences that address phenomena of great complexity. The more complex a phenomenon, the more hermeneutic preunderstanding is required by an explanation and the less likely it is that the explanation will have the aura of objective truth. Psychoanalytic theory classically demonstrates this weakness: no critical tests of the theory are possible because the failure of any prediction based on the theory can almost always be retrodictively rationalized by modifying slightly one’s preunderstanding of the phenomenon. Much of neurobiology displays this character. The student of a complex neural network must bring considerable preunderstanding to the task of interpreting its function, so the explanations that are advanced may remain beyond the reach of objective vali¬dation. —The Editor


Circuit Diagram Objective Truth Sacred Text Human Psyche Psychoanalytic Theory 
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Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gunther S. Stent
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Molecular BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA

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