Mechanisms in psychology: ripping nature at its seams

Synthese 193 (5) (2016)
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Recent extensions of mechanistic explanation into psychology suggest that cognitive models are only explanatory insofar as they map neatly onto, and serve as scaffolding for more detailed neural models. Filling in those neural details is what these accounts take the integration of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to mean, and they take this process to be seamless. Critics of this view have given up on cognitive models possibly explaining mechanistically in the course of arguing for cognitive models having explanatory value independent of how well they align with neural mechanisms. We can have things both ways, however. The problem with seamless integration accounts is their seamlessness, not that they take cognitive models to be mechanistic. A non-componential view of mechanisms allows for cognitive and neural models that cross cut one another, and for cognitive models that don’t decompose into parts. I illustrate the inadequacy of seamless accounts of integration by contrasting how “filter” models of attention in psychology and of sodium channels in neuroscience developed; by questioning whether the mappings generated by neuroimaging subtraction studies achieve integration; and by reinterpreting the evidence for cognitive models of memory having been successfully integrated with neural models. I argue that the integrations we can realistically expect are more partial, patchy, and full of loose threads than the mosaic unity Craver describes



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Catherine Stinson
Queen's University