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The multiplicity of experimental protocols: A challenge to reductionist and non-reductionist accounts of the unity of neuroscience


Descriptive accounts of the nature of explanation in neuroscience and the global goals of such explanation have recently proliferated in the philosophy of neuroscience (e.g., Bechtel, Mental mechanisms: Philosophical perspectives on cognitive neuroscience. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007; Bickle, Philosophy and neuroscience: A ruthlessly reductive account. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishing, 2003; Bickle, Synthese, 151, 411–434, 2006; Craver, Explaining the brain: Mechanisms and the mosaic unity of neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) and with them new understandings of the experimental practices of neuroscientists have emerged. In this paper, I consider two models of such practices; one that takes them to be reductive; another that takes them to be integrative. I investigate those areas of the neuroscience of learning and memory from which the examples used to substantiate these models are culled, and argue that the multiplicity of experimental protocols used in these research areas presents specific challenges for both models. In my view, these challenges have been overlooked largely because philosophers have hitherto failed to pay sufficient attention to fundamental features of experimental practice. I demonstrate that when we do pay attention to such features, evidence for reduction and integrative unity in neuroscience is simply not borne out. I end by suggesting some new directions for the philosophy of neuroscience that pertain to taking a closer look at the nature of neuroscientific experiments.