Against the materialists: John Carew Eccles, Karl Raimund Popper and the ghost in the machine

by Casey, Brian Patrick, Ph.D., YALE UNIVERSITY, 2009, 543 pages; 3395991


This dissertation analyzes the influence of the philosopher Karl Popper on the scientific research and the speculative writings of the Nobel Prize-winning neurophysiologist John Eccles. It explores the ways in which Popperian principles guided Eccles in a well-known scientific debate and how this success encouraged Eccles to create evolving neo-Cartesian dualist models of the mind/brain interaction. Drawing from their correspondence, autobiographical reflections, as well as publications, it tells the story of the converging intellectual paths that led to the controversial anti-materialist manifesto, The Self and Its Brain. Claims have been made for and against Popper's understanding of, and influence on, science; this dissertation is the first to document Popper's direct involvement in the "war" over the mode of neurotransmission. Although other modern scientists have held dualist convictions, the lengths to which Eccles went to combat the prevailing ontological reductionism of mind to brain was unprecedented. This dissertation is the first extended historical analysis of Eccles' career and philosophical ambitions. In exploring their friendship and collaboration, this dissertation explains both the nature and the effects of their partnership. It argues that Eccles used Popper's ideas in at least four different ways: to extricate himself from a degenerating research program, to justify his alternating scientific conservatism and daring, to criticize contemporary society, and finally to combat ontological materialism. It makes the novel claim that mind was central to Popper's entire philosophy. It also proposes that Popper's shift from falsificationism to critical rationalism and from physics to biology was reinforced by his interaction with Eccles. It argues that the largely negative response to The Self and Its Brain was based on a misunderstanding of the authors' intentions. Finally, it puts their efforts in the context of the mid to late twentieth-century debates surrounding the mind-body problem and the progress and limitations of the sciences of the nervous system. More broadly, this is a study of the entanglement of metaphysical commitments about the nature of knowledge and the nature of physical reality with the exercise of science.

AdviserFrank Snowden
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsPhilosophy; Science history
Publication Number3395991

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