Anatomy’s role in mechanistic explanations of organism behaviour

Synthese 203 (5):1-32 (2024)
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Explanations in behavioural neuroscience are often said to be mechanistic in the sense that they explain an organism’s behaviour by describing the activities and organisation of the organism’s parts that are “constitutively relevant” to organism behaviour. Much has been said about the constitutive relevance of working parts (in debates about the so-called “mutual manipulability criterion”), but relatively little has been said about the constitutive relevance of the organising relations between working parts. Some New Mechanists seem to endorse a simple causal-linking account: organising relations are constitutively relevant to organism behaviour if and only if (and because) they are causal relations that link the working parts that are constitutively relevant to organism behaviour. In this paper, I argue that the causal-linking account is inadequate because it neglects the constitutive relevance of anatomical relations that organise the working parts of a behaving organism. I demonstrate this by considering a case study where the anatomical organisation of the barn owl (Tyto alba) is constitutively relevant to their mechanism for sound localization. The anatomical organisation of this mechanism is best understood as the back-and-forth flow of task information across 7 “levels of anatomy” (a notion that I distinguish from levels of mechanism). A further implication, I conclude, is that at least some of the interlevel structure of neuroscientific explanation is accounted for by levels of anatomy, not levels of mechanism.

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Aliya R. Dewey
University of Erlangen-Nuremberg


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