top of page

© with permission of SpringerNature.

Mechanistic and representational explanations in cognitive neuroscience

Cognitive neuroscientists explain cognitive phenomena such as perception, memory, or problem solving by describing the neural mechanisms underlying the phenomena. In doing so, they usually assume that some components of these mechanisms have representational properties. For example, neurons in the visual cortex are thought to represent certain stimulus features, which explains how the organism is able to perceive and interact with the world. However, the combination of mechanistic and representational explanations yields a tension: neuroscientific mechanistic explanations can prima facie refer exclusively to factors within the brain. Representational properties, though, supervene on the organism’s relations to its external world and/or past. This raises, what we dub, the "compatibility challenge": can explanations in cognitive neuroscience be simultaneously mechanistic and representational? The compatibility challenge has not been sufficiently examined philosophically, though it is related to a problem familiar from philosophy of mind in the 1980s - the "classical challenge". The project can be understood as the necessary and long overdue revision and reassessment of the classical challenge in light of recent developments in philosophy of science, philosophy of cognition, and cognitive neuroscience. We will approach the compatibility challenge by working in close collaboration with empirical researchers and by applying a novel method called “adversarial collaboration” to examine two sets of working hypotheses. The first one is: A. Cognitive neuroscience can do without representational explanations and rely solely on mechanistic explanation. B. The prominence of computational explanation in cognitive neuroscience explains why scientists still use representational vocabulary while at the same time showing that computational-mechanistic explanations are sufficient. The second set of working hypotheses is: C. Computational explanation provides the first step towards an improved account of representational content and -explanation. D. It is possible to develop an account of representations in terms of function-informational properties of computational vehicles. E. Wide explananda alone do not yet render representational explanation compatible with mechanistic explanation. F. The mechanistic framework can be extended so that it allows for function-informational properties of computational vehicles to figure in mechanistic explanation. The project will provide new insights into the role representations can play in mechanistic explanations of mental phenomena. Through its methodology, it is explicitly open-ended. The results will contribute to the general understanding of our mind and the scientific explanation of it, and will significantly contribute to a fundamental reorientation of the debate between representationalists and anti-representationalists.

The Causation/Constitution Distinction in the Debate on Situated Cognition

The debate on situated cognition concerns the question whether cognition is merely a feature of the brain, or rather a feature of a larger system involving not only the brain, but also other parts of the body (Embodiment), features of the external environment (Extendedness), or active interactions between the organism and the social and physical environment (Enactedness). These three E-statements essentially make claims about what constitutes cognition: cognition is constituted by features external to the brain. Opponents of the situated cognition framework reject this constitution claim: Cognition is a feature of the brain, while the body, the external environment, and actions merely provide causal inputs to the brain, and thus, are not parts of the cognitive system. Hence, much depends on what is meant by "constitution" in the context of the situated cognition framework and how this relation differs from causation.
To approach this question, I will look into the new mechanistic literature, analyze how the distinction between causation and constitution is drawn there, and whether it can be applied to the debate on situated cognition. This strategy will profit from my earlier works on mechanistic constitution and will start with David Kaplan's (2012) ideas on the application of the mutual manipulability criterion to the E-claims. My approach to mechanistic constitution has already been applied to the enactivist notion of constitution by, for example, Shaun Gallagher (2018).

The Metaphysics of Biological Mechanisms

I provide a metaphysical analysis of the so-called New Mechanistic Approach. This approach has become popular in the philosophy of science - especially in the philosophy of the life sciences. Roughly, the New Mechansists claim that explanations in the special sciences consist in discovering and describing mechanisms that bring about the phenomena to be explained. My motivation for taking a closer look at the metaphysical commitments of this approach stems from my interest in the mind-body problem. If this approach can be applied to the cognitive sciences and psychology as well, the idea that cognitive, mental or psychological phenomena are brought about by mechanisms might provide us with new resources to think about the mind-body problem.
In order to be able to determine the consequences of the New Mechanistic Approach for the mind-body problem it was necessary to first analyze its metaphysical foundation. The most central notions such as "mechanism", "phenomenon", "activity", "constitution", "constitutive relevance", "mechanistic level", etc. remained metaphysically underdetermined in the new mechanistic literature. Therefore, I focus on the metaphysical analysis of the central notions of this approach.

Mechanisms - revisited

This is an illustration of a mechanism based on the metaphysical theory I defend. Most importantly, mechanisms and the phenomena they are responsible for are spatiotemporally extended. For details see chapter 7 of my book.

Thanks to Pamela Speh for helping me polish the figures I use throughout the book!

The Unconscious in Contemporary Psychology

In contemporary psychology, two different notions of the unconscious are used. First, in cognitive psychology scientists talk about the "cognitive" or "new unconscious" to denote cognitive phenomena that occur without the awareness of the subject. It is called "new" since it is supposed to have not much in common with the "old" Freudian unconscious. Second, in the last 15 years or so, the Freudian unconscious--the so-called "dynamic unconscious"--has become a subject of a branch of neuroscience called neuropsychoanalysis. One research focus is the investigation of the neural mechanism of repression. So far, it remains unclear, what unconscious mental phenomena are supposed to be, whether there is only one theoretically and empirically coherent notion of the unconscious, how the cognitive and the dynamic unconscious exactly differ, and what the explanatory relevance of the postulation of unconscious mental phenomena is.
One central claim I argue for is that cognitive psychology has to integrate the Freudian notion of the unconscious and it has to take seriously the idea of repression. To show this, my focus so far is on implicit biases such as implicit racial and sexist biases. I argue that in order to understand in which sense implicit biases are implicit and how this implicitness arises we have to analyze these phenomena in terms of repression.

bottom of page