Explaining the Brain: Mechanisms and the Mosaic Unity of Neuroscience

Explaining the Brain: Mechanisms and the Mosaic Unity of Neuroscience

Explaining the Brain: Mechanisms and the Mosaic Unity of Neuroscience

Explaining the Brain: Mechanisms and the Mosaic Unity of Neuroscience

Synopsis

What distinguishes good explanations in neuroscience from bad? Working from examples in the history of neuroscience (such as Hodgkin and Huxley's model of the action potential and LTP as a putative explanation for different kinds of memory) as well as from recent philosophical work on the nature of scientific explanation, Carl F. Craver constructs and defends standards for evaluating neuroscientific explanations that are grounded in a systematic view of what neuroscientific explanations are: descriptions of multilevel mechanisms.

Excerpt

There are neurophilosophers, and there are philosophers of neuroscience. Neurophilosophers use findings from neuroscience to address traditional philosophical puzzles about the mind. Philosophers of neuroscience study neuroscience to address philosophical puzzles about the nature of science. Philosophers of neuroscience are interested in neuroscience because it has distinctive goals, methods, techniques, and theoretical commitments. In this book, I propose a unified framework for the philosophy of neuroscience. Because neuroscience is like other special sciences in many respects, this framework contains lessons for the philosophy of science generally.

I develop this framework by addressing the following question: what is required of an adequate explanation in neuroscience? Debates frequently arise among neuroscientists and philosophers about whether a proposed explanation for a given phenomenon is, in fact, the correct explanation. Does Long-Term Potentiation (LTP) explain episodic memory? Do size differences in hypothalamic nuclei explain differences in sexual preference? Does the deposition of beta-amyloid plaques in the hippocampus explain memory deficits in Alzheimer’s disease? Do 40 Hz oscillations in the cortex explain feature-binding in phenomenal consciousness? While the answers to these questions depend in part on specific details about these diverse phenomena, they also depend on widely accepted though largely implicit standards for determining when explanations succeed and when they fail. My goal is to make those standards explicit and, more importantly, to show that they derive from a systematic and widespread view about what explanations are, namely, that explanations in neuroscience describe mechanisms.

My project is both descriptive and normative. My descriptive goal is to characterize the mechanistic explanations in contemporary neuroscience and the standards by which neuroscientists evaluate them. This cannot be accomplished without attention to the details of actual neuroscience. I illustrate my descriptive claims with case studies from the recent history of neuroscience. For neuroscientists, I present enough detail to make the . . .

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