Minds and Machines

, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp 467-481

First online:

Understanding Neural Complexity: A Role For Reduction

  • John BickleAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy and Neuroscience Graduate Program, University of Cincinnati

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Psychoneural reduction is under attack again, only this time from a former ally: cognitive neuroscience. It has become popular to think of the brain as a complex system whose theoretically important properties emerge from dynamic, non-linear interactions between its component parts. ``Emergence'' is supposed to replace reduction: the latter is thought to be incapable of explaining the brain qua complex system. Rather than engage this issue at the level of theories of reduction versus theories of emergence, I here emphasize a role that reductionism plays – and will continue to play – even if neuroscience adopts this ``complex systems'' view. In detailed investigations into the function of complex neural circuits, certain questions can only be addressed by moving down levels and scales. This role for reduction also finds a place for approaches that dominate mainstream neuroscience, like the widespread use of experimental techniques and theories from molecular biology and biochemistry. These are difficult to reconcile with the anti-reductionist sentiments of the ``complex systems'' branch of cognitive neuroscience.