Function-Theoretic Explanation and the Search for Neural Mechanisms

In David Michael Kaplan (ed.), Explanation and Integration in Mind and Brain Science. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. pp. 145-163 (2017)
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A common kind of explanation in cognitive neuroscience might be called functiontheoretic: with some target cognitive capacity in view, the theorist hypothesizes that the system computes a well-defined function (in the mathematical sense) and explains how computing this function constitutes (in the system’s normal environment) the exercise of the cognitive capacity. Recently, proponents of the so-called ‘new mechanist’ approach in philosophy of science have argued that a model of a cognitive capacity is explanatory only to the extent that it reveals the causal structure of the mechanism underlying the capacity. If they are right, then a cognitive model that resists a transparent mapping to known neural mechanisms fails to be explanatory. I argue that a functiontheoretic characterization of a cognitive capacity can be genuinely explanatory even absent an account of how the capacity is realized in neural hardware.

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