What was Hodgkin and Huxley’s Achievement?

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 65 (3):469-492 (2013)
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The Hodgkin–Huxley (HH) model of the action potential is a theoretical pillar of modern neurobiology. In a number of recent publications, Carl Craver ([2006], [2007], [2008]) has argued that the model is explanatorily deficient because it does not reveal enough about underlying molecular mechanisms. I offer an alternative picture of the HH model, according to which it deliberately abstracts from molecular specifics. By doing so, the model explains whole-cell behaviour as the product of a mass of underlying low-level events. The issue goes beyond cellular neurobiology, for the strategy of abstraction exhibited in the HH case is found in a range of biological contexts. I discuss why it has been largely neglected by advocates of the mechanist approach to explanation. 1 Introduction2 A Primer on the HH Model2.1 The basic qualitative picture2.2 The quantitative model3 Interlude: What Did Hodgkin and Huxley Think?4 Craver’s View4.1 Mechanistic explanation4.2 Sketches4.3 Craver's view: The HH model as a mechanism sketch5 An Alternative View of the HH Model5.1 Another look at the equations5.2 The discrete-gating picture5.3 The road paved by Hodgkin and Huxley5.4 Summary and comparison to Craver6 Conclusion: The HH Model and Mechanistic Explanation6.1 Sketches and abstractions6.2 Why has aggregative abstraction been overlooked?

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Arnon Levy
Hebrew University of Jerusalem


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