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 (GPCR) → (AC) → cAMP‐dependent (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 .



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