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Can there be spatially distributed parts in a mechanistic explanation?

June 9, 2014

Morgan Thompson

Abstract: Some mechanists maintain that mechanistic explanation is the ideal type of explanation in neuroscience and that mechanistic explanations can contain spatially distributed parts. There is a tension between these two claims. Carl Craver (2007) lists the following criteria for parts that are appropriate for featuring in mechanistic explanations: being detectable by multiple theoretically independent techniques (a la Wimsatt), having a stable cluster of properties (a la Boyd), being manipulatable, and being physiologically plausible. However, spatially distributed parts are not clearly appropriate on those criteria. I appeal to examples from neuroscience where researchers use multivariate pattern analysis to analyze spatially distributed networks. I conclude that mechanists should either adjust their criteria for parts appropriate for mechanisms so that they include spatially distributed parts or they should give up mechanistic explanation as the ideal explanatory scheme in neuroscience.

 

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