Philosophy of Neuroscience


Since its inception more than a quarter‐century ago, the philosophy of neuroscience has grown into a recognised field in the philosophy of the special sciences. It focusses on foundational issues in the discipline, but also anticipates developments in the neurosciences that bear on epistemological, ethical and cultural concerns. In this paper, life scientists are introduced to three current issues in the philosophy of neuroscience: a new version of the old reductionism‐versus‐integrationism debate, spurred recently by ‘new mechanist’ philosophers of neuroscience; a challenge to ‘dynamicist’ explanations in neuroscience, as either covertly mechanistic or nonexplanatory; and a brief introduction to the burgeoning field of neuroethics and neurolaw, which is finding new discoveries in neuroscience that bear on both familiar ethical debates and generate novel ethical and legal concerns.

Key Concepts:

  • Philosophy of neuroscience is now a recognised field in the philosophy of the special sciences (biology, psychology and economics).

  • The reductionism‐versus‐integrationism debate has reemerged in an interesting new form due to the recent work by ‘new mechanist’ philosophers of neuroscience.

  • The debate among mechanist‐integrationists, mechanistic reductionist and ruthless reductionists turns on the viability and extent of nested hierarchies of mechanisms in neuroscience.

  • Some ‘new mechanists’ have challenged dynamicist explanations in neuroscience, suggesting that such explanations are not distinct from causal‐mechanistic explanations, and even questioning whether such ‘explanations’ are genuine at all.

  • Neuroethics includes both the study of ethical issues raised or influenced by neuroscientific discoveries, and the neuroscience of ethical judgment and decision‐making.

  • Brain interventionist technologies and neuropharmacology raise difficult questions about the ethical dimensions of potential cognitive enhancement.

  • Existing and foreseeable brain interventions encroach upon deep philosophical questions about personal identity and basic fairness.

  • The increasing use of neuronal evidence in law courts raise troubling issues about brain‐realism and the potential impact such evidence may have on juries and judges.

Keywords: philosophy of neuroscience; levels; new mechanism; ruthless reductionism; mechanistic explanations; dynamicist explanations; neuroethics; neurolaw; privacy; personal identity

Figure 1.

Overview of signaling pathways that lead to the phosphorylation of CREB. Our focus in the text is on the left‐most pathway in the diagram, from G protein‐coupled receptors (GPCR) → adenylate cyclases (AC) → cAMP‐dependent protein kinase A (PKA) → CREB, and the inhibitory pathway at the bottom of the diagram, from protein phosphatase 1 (PP1), to remove the phosphate group and deactivate pCREB transcription enhancement. Reprinted with permission from Figure 5 in Lonze and Ginty .

Figure 2.

Kinase–phosphatase molecular antagonism as a mechanism of the Ebbinghaus spacing effect. In massed (and briefer‐interval distributed) training, frequency of activity in neurons recruited into the memory trace not only activates activity‐dependent pCREB, but also activates its phosphatase inhibitor, PP1. This results in little pCREB transcription enhancement, little synaptic plasticity and little memory. In (longer‐interval) distributed training, frequency of activity in neurons recruited into the memory trace is enough to activate pCREB, but not enough to activate PP1 significantly, resulting in significant pCREB transcription enhancement, significant synaptic plasticity, and significant memory. Reprinted with permission from Figure 1a, 1b in Silva and Josselyn .



Bechara A, Dolan S, Denburg N et al. (2001) Decision‐making deficits, linked to a dysfunctional ventromedial prefrontal cortex, revealed in alcohol and stimulant abusers. Neuropsychologia 39: 376–389.

Bechtel W (1998) Representations and cognitive explanations: assessing the dynamicist challenge in cognitive science. Cognitive Science 22: 295–318.

Bechtel W (2009) Molecules, systems and behavior: another view of memory consolidation. In: Bickle J (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience, pp. 13–40. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bechtel W and Richardson RC (1993) Discovering Complexity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bickle J (2006) Reducing mind to molecular pathways: explicating the reductionism implicit in current mainstream neuroscience. Synthese 152: 411–434.

Bickle J (2007) Who says you can't do a molecular biology of consciousness? In: Shouten M and de Jong HL (eds) The Matter of the Mind, pp. 275–297. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bickle J (2009a) Real reductionism in real neuroscience: matascience, not philosophy of science (and certainly not metaphysics!). In: Hohwy J and Kallestrup J (eds) Being Reduced, pp. 34–51. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bickle J (ed.) (2009b) Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bickle J (2012) A brief history of neuroscience's actual influences on mind‐brain reductionism. In: Gozzano S and Hill C (eds) New Perspectives on Type Identity, pp. 88–110. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Botteron KN, Raichle ME, Drevits WC, Heath AC and Todd RN (2002) Volumetric reduction in left subgenual prefrontal cortex in early onset depression. Biological Psychiatry 51: 342–344.

Canli T and Amin Z (2002) Neuroimaging of emotion and personality: scientific evidence and ethical considerations. Brain and Cognition 50: 414–431.

Churchland PS (1986) Neurophilosophy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Craver C (2007) Explaining the Brain. New York: Oxford University Press.

Craver C and Darden L (2001) Discovering mechanisms in neurobiology: the case of spatial memory. In: Machamer PK, Grush R and McLaughlin P (eds) Theory and Method in Neuroscience, pp. 112–137. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Craver C and Kaplan D (2011) Toward a mechanistic philosophy of neuroscience: a mechanistic approach. In: French S and Saatsi J (eds) Continuum Companion to the Philosophy of Science, pp. 268–292. New York: Continuum Press.

Farah MJ (2010) Neuroethics: an overview. In: Farah MJ (ed.) Neuroethics: An Introduction with Readings, pp. 1–10. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Genoux D, Haditsch U, Knobloch M et al. (2002) Protein phosphatase 1 is a molecular constraint on learning and memory. Nature 418: 970–975.

Golby AJ, Gabrieli JDE, Chiao JY and Eberhardt JL (2001) Differential responses in the fusiform region to same‐race and other‐race faces. Nature Neuroscience 4: 845–850.

Gordijn B and Giordano JJ (2010) Scientific and Philosophical Perspectives in Neuroethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Haken H, Kelso JA and Bunz H (1985) A theoretical model of phase transitions in human hand movements. Biological Cybernetics 51: 347–356.

Hall SS (2003) The quest for a smart pill. Scientific American 289: 54–57 60–65 .

Han J‐H, Kushner S, Yiu A et al. (2007) Neuronal competition and selection during memory formation. Science 316: 457–460.

Hempel CG (1965) Aspects of Scientific Explanation and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Science. New York: Free Press.

Ho BC, Andreasen NC, Nopoulos P et al. (2003) Progressive structural brain abnormalities and their relationship to clinical outcome: A longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging study early in schizophrenia. Archives of General Psychiatry 60: 585–594.

Illes J, Kirschen MP and Gabrilei JDE (2003) From neuroimaging to neuroethics. Nature Neuroscience 6: 250.

Illes J and Racine E (2005) Imagining or imagining? A neuroethics challenge informed by genetics. American Journals of Bioethics 5: 5–18.

Iowa Supreme Court (2003) Terry Harrington, Appellant, vs. State of Iowa, Appellee, No. 122/01‐0653, filed 26 February 2003.‐court/2003/01‐0653.html

Lonze BE and Ginty DD (2002) Function and regulation of CREB family transcription factors in the nervous system. Neuron 35: 605–623

Langleben DD, Schoeder L, Maldijian JA et al. (2002) Brain activity during simulated deception: an event‐related functional magnetic resonance study. NeuroImage 15: 727–732.

Lynch G (2002) Memory enhancement: the search for mechanism‐based drugs. Nature Neuroscience 5: 1035–1038.

Mosimann UP, Rihs TQ, Engeler J, Fisch H‐U and Schlaepfer TE (2000) Mood effects of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation of left prefrontal cortex in healthy volunteers. Psychiatry Research 94: 251–256.

Phelps EA, Cannistraci CJ and Cunningham WA (2003) Intact performance on an indirect measure of race bias following amygdala damage. Neuropsychologia 41: 203–208.

Raine A, Buchsbaum MS, Stanley J et al. (1994) Selective reductions in pre‐frontal glucose metabolism in murderers. Biological Psychiatry 36: 365–373.

Raine A, Meloy JR, Bihrle S et al. (1998) Reduced prefrontal and increased subcortical brain functioning assessed using positron emission tomography in predatory and affective murderers. Behavioral Sciences and the Law 16: 319–332.

Richeson JA, Baird AA, Gordon HL et al. (2003) An fMRI investigation of the impact of interracial contact on executive function. Nature Neuroscience 6: 1323–1327.

Robins S and Craver C (2009) Biological clocks: explaining with models of mechanisms. In: Bickle J (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience, pp. 41–67. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rogers RD and Robbins T (2001) Investigating the neurocognitive deficits associated with chronic drug misuse. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 11: 250–257.

Roskies A (2002) Neuroethics for a new millennium. Neuron 35: 21–23.

Safire W (2002) Vision for a new field of neuroethics. In: Marcus SJ (ed.) Neuroethics: Mapping the Field, pp. 1–2. New York: The Dana Foundation.

Sharma V (2011) Pilot pill project. Prune Mirror.‐pill‐project.html

Silva AJ and Bickle J (2009) The science of research and the search for molecular mechanisms of cognitive functions. In: Bickle J (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience, pp. 91–127. New York: Oxford University Press.

Silva AJ and Josselyn S (2002) Cognitive neuroscience: the molecules of forgetfulness. Nature 418: 929–930.

Singer T, Weymour B, O'Doherty J et al. (2004) Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain. Science 303: 1157–1162.

Storm W (2008) A Fatigue Management System for Sustained Military Operations. Fort Detrick, Maryland: US Army Medical Research and Material Command.

Teicher MH, Anderson SL, Polcari A et al. (2003) The neurobiological consequences of early stress and childhood maltreatment. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 27: 33–44.

The Maryland Medical Protocols for Emergency Medical Service Providers (2009) Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.

Thirsk R, Kuipers A, Chiaki M and Williams D (2009) The space‐flight environment: The International Space Station and beyond. Canadian Medical Association Journal 180: 1216–1220.

Wezenberg E, Verkes RJ, Ruigt GS, Hulstijn W and Sabbe BG (2007) Acute effects of the ampakine farampator on memory and information processing in healthy elderly volunteers. Neuropsychopharmacology 32: 1272–1283.

Wimsatt WC (1976) Reductionism, levels of organization, and the mind‐body problem. In: Globus G, Savodnik I and Maxwell G (eds) Consciousness and the Brain, pp. 199–267. New York: Plenum Press.

Wimsatt WC (2007) Re‐engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Further Reading

Churchland PS (2011) Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Farah MJ (2005) Neuroethics: the practical and the philosophical. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9: 34–40.

Glennon W (2006) Bioethics and the Brain. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kaplan DM and Craver CF (2011) The explanatory force of dynamical models. Philosophy of Science 78(4): 601–627.

Racine E (2010) Pragmatic Neuroethics: Improving Treatment and Understanding of the Mind Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Silva AJ and Bickle J (2009) The sience of research and the search for molecular mechanisms of cognitive functions. In: Bickle J (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neurocince, pp 91–127. New York: Oxford University Press.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Bickle, John, and Hardcastle, Valerie Gray(Oct 2012) Philosophy of Neuroscience. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0024144]