Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 26, Issue 4, pp 547–565 | Cite as

Selected effects and causal role functions in the brain: the case for an etiological approach to neuroscience

  • Justin GarsonEmail author


Despite the voluminous literature on biological functions produced over the last 40 years, few philosophers have studied the concept of function as it is used in neuroscience. Recently, Craver (forthcoming; also see Craver 2001) defended the causal role theory against the selected effects theory as the most appropriate theory of function for neuroscience. The following argues that though neuroscientists do study causal role functions, the scope of that theory is not as universal as claimed. Despite the strong prima facie superiority of the causal role theory, the selected effects theory (when properly developed) can handle many cases from neuroscience with equal facility. It argues this by presenting a new theory of function that generalizes the notion of a ‘selection process’ to include processes such as neural selection, antibody selection, and some forms of learning—that is, to include structures that have been differentially retained as well as those that have been differentially reproduced. This view, called the generalized selected effects theory of function, will be defended from criticism and distinguished from similar views in the literature.


Teleology Function Neuroscience Mechanism Selection Neural Darwinism 



The author wishes to express his gratitude to Carl Craver, Gualtiero Piccinini, Anya Plutynski, and the University of Utah philosophy of biology lab group for comments and criticism on an earlier draft.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyHunter College of the City University of New YorkNew YorkUSA

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