Getting over Atomism: Functional Decomposition in Complex Neural Systems

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 72 (3):743-772 (2021)
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Functional decomposition is an important goal in the life sciences, and is central to mechanistic explanation and explanatory reduction. A growing literature in philosophy of science, however, has challenged decomposition-based notions of explanation. ‘Holists’ posit that complex systems exhibit context-sensitivity, dynamic interaction, and network dependence, and that these properties undermine decomposition. They then infer from the failure of decomposition to the failure of mechanistic explanation and reduction. I argue that complexity, so construed, is only incompatible with one notion of decomposition, which I call ‘atomism’, and not with decomposition writ large. Atomism posits that function ascriptions must be made to parts with minimal reference to the surrounding system. Complexity does indeed falsify atomism, but I contend that there is a weaker, ‘contextualist’ notion of decomposition that is fully compatible with the properties that holists cite. Contextualism suggests that the function of parts can shift with external context, and that interactions with other parts might help determine their context-appropriate functions. This still admits of functional decomposition within a given context. I will give examples based on the notion of oscillatory multiplexing in systems neuroscience. If contextualism is feasible, then holist inferences are faulty—one cannot infer from the presence of complexity to the failure of decomposition, mechanism, and reductionism.

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Daniel Burnston
Tulane University


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