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Philosophy of Neuroscience

View via Publisher. Syntax Advanced Search. Summary The philosophy of neuroscience includes applications of neuroscience to philosophical problems as well as philosophical investigations of neuroscience. The application of neuroscience to philosophical problems such as problems in philosophy of mind is sometimes referred to as "neurophilosophy".

The philosophical investigation of neuroscience is a sub-discipline of the philosophy of science. Key works See the pioneering Churchland for an early overview of key themes in philosophy of neuroscience. Introductions For a concise introductory overview, see Bickle et al Show all references. Subcategories: Brain Imaging and Localization Representation in Neuroscience Explanation in Neuroscience Neurophilosophy Philosophy of Neuroscience, Misc In chapter 5 of her book, Patricia Churchland extended both the range and philosophical implications of neurological deficits.

One deficit she discusses in detail is blindsight. Some patients with lesions to primary visual cortex report being unable to see items in regions of their visual fields, yet perform far better than chance in forced guess trials about stimuli in those regions. A variety of scientific and philosophical interpretations have been offered.

Ned Block worried that many of these interpretations conflate distinct notions of consciousness. The latter is the availability of representational content to self-initiated action and speech. Block argued that P-consciousness is not always representational, whereas A-consciousness is. Dennett , and Tye are skeptical of non-representational analyses of consciousness in general.

We break off our brief overview of neurophilosophical work on consciousness here. Many other topics are worth neurophilosophical pursuit. We mentioned commissurotomy and the unity of consciousness and the self, which continues to generate discussion. One of the first issues to arise in neurology, as far back as the nineteenth century, concerned the localization of specific cognitive functions to specific brain regions. These neurologists made careful studies when possible of linguistic deficits in their aphasic patients, followed by brain autopsies post mortem.

Less than two decades later Carl Wernicke published evidence for a second language center. More recent and more careful lesion studies suggest more precise localization of specific linguistic functions, and remain a cornerstone to this day in aphasia research. Lesion studies have also produced evidence for the localization of other cognitive functions: for example, sensory processing and certain types of learning and memory.

Trends in Philosophy of Mind and in Philosophy of Neuroscience

However, localization arguments for these other functions invariably include studies using animal models. With an animal model, one can perform careful behavioral measures in highly controlled settings, then ablate specific areas of neural tissue or use a variety of other techniques to block or enhance activity in these areas and re-measure performance on the same behavioral tests.

Barbara Von Eckardt Von Eckardt Klein attempted to make explicit the steps of reasoning involved in this common and historically important method. These analyses break down a complex capacity C into its constituent capacities c 1 , c 2 ,…, c n , where the constituent capacities are consistent with the underlying structural details of the system. For example, human speech production complex capacity C results from formulating a speech intention, then selecting appropriate linguistic representations to capture the content of the speech intention, then formulating the motor commands to produce the appropriate sounds, then communicating these motor commands to the appropriate motor pathways all together, the constituent capacities c 1 , c 2 ,…, c n.

A functional-localization hypothesis has the form: brain structure S in organism type O has constituent capacity c i , where c i is a function of some part of O. Such hypotheses specify aspects of the structural realization of a functional-component model. They are part of the theory of the neural realization of the functional model.

Armed with these characterizations, Von Eckardt Klein argues that inference to a functional-localization hypothesis proceeds in two steps.

A Neuron Doctrine in the Philosophy of Neuroscience | ANU School of Philosophy

First, a functional deficit in a patient is hypothesized based on the abnormal behavior the patient exhibits. Second, localization of function in normal brains is inferred on the basis of the functional deficit hypothesis plus the evidence about the site of brain damage. The structurally-adequate functional analysis of the capacity connects the pathological behavior to the hypothesized functional deficit.

This connection suggests four adequacy conditions on a functional deficit hypothesis. First, the pathological behavior P e. Second, there must be a structurally-adequate functional analysis of how people exercise capacity C that involves some constituent capacity c i formulating motor commands to produce the appropriate sounds. Fourth, there must not be a better available explanation for why the patient does P.

Arguments to a functional deficit hypothesis on the basis of pathological behavior is thus an instance of argument to the best available explanation. When postulating a deficit in a normal functional component provides the best available explanation of the pathological data, we are justified in drawing the inference. Von Eckardt Klein applies this analysis to a neurological case study involving a controversial reinterpretation of agnosia.

She presents examples of each from the neurological literature. Such challenges do not impugn the validity of standard arguments for functional localization from deficits. It does not follow that such arguments are unproblematic. But they face difficult factual and methodological problems, not logical ones. Furthermore, the analysis of these arguments as involving a type of functional analysis and inference to the best available explanation carries an important implication for the biological study of cognitive function.

Functional analyses require functional theories, and structurally adequate functional analyses require checks imposed by the lower level sciences investigating the underlying physical mechanisms. Arguments to best available explanation are often hampered by a lack of theoretical imagination: the available alternative explanations are often severely limited. We must seek theoretical inspiration from any level of investigation or explanation.

Over the last three decades, new evidence for localizations of cognitive functions has come increasingly from a new source, the development and refinement of neuroimaging techniques. However, the logical form of localization-of-function arguments appears not to have changed from those employing lesion studies, as analyzed by Von Eckardt Klein. Instead, these new neuroimaging technologies resolve some of the methodological problems that plagued lesion studies.

For example, researchers do not need to wait until the patient dies, and in the meantime probably acquires additional brain damage, to find the lesion sites. Two functional imaging techniques have been prominent in philosophical discussions: positron emission tomography, or PET, and functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Although these measure different biological markers of functional activity, PET approved for human use now has spatial resolution down to the single mm range, while fMRI has resolution down to less than 1mm.

Stufflebeam and Bechtel provided an early and philosophically useful discussion of PET. Bechtel and Mundale further refined philosophical arguments for localization of function specific to neuroscience. More recent philosophical discussion of these functional imaging techniques has tended to urge more caution resting localization claims on their results.

Roskies , for example, points out the tendency to think of the evidential force of functional neuroimages especially fMRI on an analogy of that of photographs. Drawing on work in aesthetics and the visual arts, Roskies argues that many of the features that give photographs their evidential force are not present in functional neuroimages. So while neuroimages do serve as evidence for claims about neurofunctions, and even for localization hypotheses, details of their proper interpretation are far more complicated than philosophers sometimes assume.

For these images present the results of null hypothesis significance testing on fMRI data, and such testing alone cannot provide evidence about the functional structure of a causally dense system, which the human brain is. Instead, functional neuroimages are properly interpreted as indicating regions where further data and analysis are warranted. But these data will typically require more than simple significance testing, so skepticism about the evidential force of neuroimages does not warrant skepticism more generally about fMRI.

Localization of function remains to this day a central topic of discussion in philosophy of neuroscience.


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We will cover more recent work in later sections. What neuroscience has now discovered about the cellular and molecular mechanisms of neural conductance and transmission is spectacular. These results constitute one of the crowning achievements of scientific inquiry.

For those in doubt, simply peruse for five minutes a recent volume of Society for Neuroscience Abstracts. All this is a natural outcome of increasing scientific specialization. We develop the technology, the experimental techniques, and ultimately the experimental results-driven theories within specific disciplines to push forward our understanding.