PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Toward a practice-oriented integration of the mind-brain sciences

What does successful integration across scientific disciplines require? With the rise in cross-disciplinary research, this familiar question takes on new importance. A recent debate between Piccinini and Craver (2011) and Sullivan (forthcoming) helps to frame this issue, particularly in the context of the mind-brain sciences. While Sullivan identifies an important challenge to Piccinini and Craver’s account of integration, I argue that her critique sets too high a standard for integration. In contrast, I propose a weaker, more plausible standard that profits from being grounded in scientific practice.

Piccinini and Craver argue that since explanations in neuroscience and in psychology are of a common type (i.e., both are mechanistic) these sciences can be “seamlessly integrated” explanatorily. In response, Sullivan contends that the mind-brain sciences cannot currently be integrated because their explanations fail to satisfy a necessary condition for integration: construct stability. A construct is stable if the researchers using it are referring to the same phenomenon. For two explanations to be integrated, Sullivan argues, their common terms –those constructs designating the cognitive capacities to be explained– must refer to the same things, otherwise one explanation supplants the other. She shows that constructs in the mind-brain sciences are unstable, and so concludes that these sciences cannot be integrated.

Though Sullivan’s stability requirement is problematic, its failure is edifying. If she is right that stability is necessary for integrating but the constructs in psychology and neuroscience are unstable, then it follows that integration between these disciplines is not currently possible, and it follows that integration within them isn’t possible either. If this is so, then neuroscientists working in one laboratory cannot felicitously draw on evidence or findings from other neuroscience laboratories. In light of this result, I propose a shift away from thinking about integration formally/logically and toward actual scientific practice.

Doing so, I develop coordinating as a more plausible requirement for integration. Coordinating indicates rational engagement or interplay among researchers. This engagement/interplay operates at the level of experimental findings and evidence, as well as researchers’ practices, analyses, and theories. While coordinating is expansive and does not demand anything so strong as construct stability, it does presuppose mutual intelligibility among researchers’ ways of working and talking. Coordinating might involve using similar tools or techniques, experimental paradigms or measures, or studying common capacities or phenomena. Yet, it can also permit substantial differences among researchers. Researchers can be coordinating, even if they criticize one another, use different paradigms or measures, and understand/operationalize key terms differently, provided they can orient, frame, or otherwise relate their findings.

This shift to scientific practice, and coordinating, specifically, not only avoids the problem Sullivan’s stability requirement faces, it provides a framework for answering the broader question of disciplinary integration. To demonstrate this point I consider cross-disciplinary research involving the Morris water maze. This research illustrates coordinating’s many faces and its abundance in the mind-brain sciences. It also shows that coordinating is not merely a plausible, practice-grounded constraint on integration: it is integration-promoting.

Author Information:

Noel Martin    
Department of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Cognitive Science Program
University of California, San Diego


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