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Dr Julian Kieverstein, U of Amsterdam Life-Mind Continuity and the Limits of Mechanistic Explanation.

SPA Research Seminar

Abstract: The starting point for my paper will be a debate about the limits of mechanistic explanation in neuroscience (and in the biological sciences more generally). Proponents of dynamical systems approaches to cognitive science have argued that brain processes exhibit system level dynamical properties that resist description in mechanistic terms (Silberstein & Chemero 2010; 2013). Neural systems are made up of component parts that systematically and continuously affect each other in a nonlinear fashion. Moreover, oscillations, feedback loops and recurrent connections play an essential role in understanding system-level, network properties in brains. Systems exhibiting these properties do not admit of functional decomposition and localization of functions to components parts that are the signatures of mechanistic explanation. Defenders of mechanistic explanation (Craver, Kaplan, Bechtel) have responded that a system can exhibit the type of emergent behaviours that make it resistant to localisation and decomposition, and still be susceptible to mechanistic explanation. Ill focus on the recent arguments of Bechtel in my talk (Bechtel 2008; forthcoming). He has been arguing that the lesson to be drawn from the arguments of the dynamists is that we need to update our view of biological mechanisms. In particular we must view biological mechanisms as functioning in the context of dynamically, active, living systems. This has led Bechtel to agree with dynamicists that the defining properties of living systems such as self-organisation, circular causality and autopoiesis are also the defining properties of cognitive systems. I will follow Godfrey-Smith and others in labelling this the life-mind continuity thesis. Some dynamicists (e.g. those defending an enactive theory of cognition) have argued that the life-mind continuity thesis means embracing a form of teleology that is unacceptable to the mechanist (Thompson 2007). The life-mind continuity thesis points to the limits of mechanistic explanation. The question I want to take up in my talk is whether one can endorse a life-mind continuity thesis without accepting this further claim that self-producing, self-organising beings make living systems fundamentally different from machines. I will pursue this question through the example of work in systems neuroscience that points to the interdependence of emotion and cognitive processing in the brain. I will suggest that this interdependence is naturally interpreted as supporting a life-mind continuity thesis but it can also be naturally understood by appeal to Bechtels concept of active mechanisms.

A Department of Sociology & Philosophy seminar
Date12 May 2014
Time15:00 to 17:00
PlaceAmory A239AB


Amory A239AB