Contents, vehicles, and complex data analysis in neuroscience

Synthese 199 (1-2):1617-1639 (2020)
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The notion of representation in neuroscience has largely been predicated on localizing the components of computational processes that explain cognitive function. On this view, which I call “algorithmic homuncularism,” individual, spatially and temporally distinct parts of the brain serve as vehicles for distinct contents, and the causal relationships between them implement the transformations specified by an algorithm. This view has a widespread influence in philosophy and cognitive neuroscience, and has recently been ably articulated and defended by Shea. Still, I am skeptical about algorithmic homuncularism, and I argue against it by focusing on recent methods for complex data analysis in systems neuroscience. I claim that analyses such as principle components analysis and linear discriminant analysis prevent individuating vehicles as algorithmic homuncularism recommends. Rather, each individual part contributes to a global state space, trajectories of which vary with important task parameters. I argue that, while homuncularism is false, this view still supports a kind of “vehicle realism,” and I apply this view to debates about the explanatory role of representation.

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Daniel Burnston
Tulane University


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