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

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Toward A New Account of Neurobiological Experimentation: Re-examining the Need for Consistency in Neurobiological Research

Reductionism (Bickle, 2003) and new mechanism (Craver, 2007) are two principal schools of thought in recent accounts of neurobiological explanation and practice. In attempting to heed closer to actual experimental practice, philosopher Jacqueline Sullivan poses two challenges to the reductionists and mechanists: 1. Multiplicity of experimental protocols invalidates the consistency that is necessary to explain cognitive phenomena across labs, and 2. External validity and reliability normatively impose conflicting prescriptions on research (Sullivan, 2009). More fundamentally, she implies that the production of neurobiological research is only locally useful, i.e. useful for the specific lab it was generated in. Further, Sullivan later argues that both mechanists and reductionists end up advocating scientific anti-realism since their explanations draw from laboratories that are unequipped to identify natural kind categories of cognition (Sullivan, 2016).
Strictly following Sullivan’s views requires accepting that experimental outcomes are incapable of producing knowledge about the phenomena such studies aim to understand. I challenge Sullivan by applying her own criticism – namely, in representing actual neurobiological experimentation. By detailing the range of discrepancies amongst actual neurobiological techniques, one worries whether Sullivan’s arguments prevent discerning between how inconsistencies in practice might serve, rather than stall, neurobiological experimentation. Thus, I critique Sullivan’s account in two ways: 1. Sullivan’s focus on protocols distracts from demonstrating how neurobiological experiments and tools embody variability even when external conditions are kept as constant as possible, and 2. She ignores that neurobiologists are aware of regular variability and this occludes how variability acts as an essential component to the experimental process. The danger of ignoring such issues is that Sullivan implicitly excludes the epistemic utility of experimental inconsistencies.
First, I sketch Sullivan’s seemingly more accurate representation of neurobiological practice, as it is constructed to oppose reductionism and mechanism. I then note the range of variability that can occur within (and not just across) neurobiological labs to address the limitations of Sullivan’s critique. My example draws from the issues of signal-to-noise ratio in electrophysiology and staining and cell counting in immunohistochemistry, two widely used techniques in neurobiology. Next, I address Sullivan’s concern regarding validity and reliability by borrowing from Nina Atanasova’s work on animal models (2015). I then discuss a recent experimental technique, optogenetics, that embodies both the precision and complexity of neurobiological experimentation and has opened new fields of investigation in neuroscience. Finally, I acknowledge how Sullivan’s own critiques lead her to the erroneous conclusion that both reductionists and mechanists are proponents of scientific anti-realism.

Atanasova, N. (2015). Validating animal models. Theoria, 30, 163-181.
Bickle, J. (2003). Philosophy and neuroscience: A ruthlessly reductive account.
Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishing.
Craver, C. (2007). Explaining the brain: Mechanisms and the mosaic unity of neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sullivan, J. (2009). The multiplicity of experimental protocols: A challenge to reductionist and non-reductionist models of the unity of neuroscience. Synthese, 167, 511-539.
Sullivan, J. (2016). Neuroscientific kinds through the lens of scientific practice. In Catherine Kendig (Ed.), Natural Kinds and Classification in Scientific Practice (47-56). Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Author Information:

Nedah Nemati    
Department of Philosophy & Religion
Mississippi State University

John Bickle    
Mississippi State University/University of Mississippi Medical Center


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