Minimal models and canonical neural computations: the distinctness of computational explanation in neuroscience

Synthese 191 (2):127-153 (2014)
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In a recent paper, Kaplan (Synthese 183:339–373, 2011) takes up the task of extending Craver’s (Explaining the brain, 2007) mechanistic account of explanation in neuroscience to the new territory of computational neuroscience. He presents the model to mechanism mapping (3M) criterion as a condition for a model’s explanatory adequacy. This mechanistic approach is intended to replace earlier accounts which posited a level of computational analysis conceived as distinct and autonomous from underlying mechanistic details. In this paper I discuss work in computational neuroscience that creates difficulties for the mechanist project. Carandini and Heeger (Nat Rev Neurosci 13:51–62, 2012) propose that many neural response properties can be understood in terms of canonical neural computations. These are “standard computational modules that apply the same fundamental operations in a variety of contexts.” Importantly, these computations can have numerous biophysical realisations, and so straightforward examination of the mechanisms underlying these computations carries little explanatory weight. Through a comparison between this modelling approach and minimal models in other branches of science, I argue that computational neuroscience frequently employs a distinct explanatory style, namely, efficient coding explanation. Such explanations cannot be assimilated into the mechanistic framework but do bear interesting similarities with evolutionary and optimality explanations elsewhere in biology



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Mazviita Chirimuuta
University of Pittsburgh

References found in this work

The Language of Thought.Jerry A. Fodor - 1975 - Harvard University Press.
Explaining the brain: mechanisms and the mosaic unity of neuroscience.Carl F. Craver - 2007 - New York : Oxford University Press,: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press.
Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation.Michael Strevens - 2008 - Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Thinking about mechanisms.Peter Machamer, Lindley Darden & Carl F. Craver - 2000 - Philosophy of Science 67 (1):1-25.

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