David Bourget (Western Ontario)
David Chalmers (ANU, NYU)
Rafael De Clercq
Ezio Di Nucci
Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Jack Alan Reynolds
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Hodgkin and Huxley’s 1952 model of the action potential is an apparent dream case of covering-law explanation. The model appeals to general laws of physics and chemistry (specifically, Ohm’s law and the Nernst equation), and the laws, coupled with details about antecedent and background conditions, entail many of the significant properties of the action potential. However, Hodgkin and Huxley insist that their model falls short of an explanation. This historical fact suggests either that there is more to explaining the action potential than subsuming it under a general laws or that Hodgkin and Huxley were wrong about the explanatory import of their model. In this paper, I defend Hodgkin and Huxley’s view that their model alone does not explain the action potential (contra Weber 2005). I argue further that neuroscientists lacked crucial explanatory details about the action potential until they could describe the molecular and ionic mechanisms by virtue of which their model holds (see Bogen 2005). Mathematical generalizations are important epistemic tools for assessing mechanistic explanations, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient for adequate explanations, even at the lowest levels of organization where biological phenomena are integrated with physics and chemistry.
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