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The scope and limits of a mechanistic view of computational explanation


An increasing number of philosophers have promoted the idea that mechanism provides a fruitful framework for thinking about the explanatory contributions of computational approaches in cognitive neuroscience. For instance, Piccinini and Bahar (Cogn Sci 37(3):453–488, 2013) have recently argued that neural computation constitutes a sui generis category of physical computation which can play a genuine explanatory role in the context of investigating neural and cognitive processes. The core of their proposal is to conceive of computational explanations in cognitive neuroscience as a subspecies of mechanistic explanations. This paper identifies several challenges facing their mechanistic account and sketches an alternative way of thinking about the epistemic roles of computational approaches used in the study of brain and cognition. Drawing on examples from both low-level and systems-level computational neuroscience, I argue that at least some computational explanations of neural and cognitive processes are partially independent from mechanistic constraints.

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  1. 1.

    This feature of computing systems is particularly salient in Piccinini’s critique of the semantic view of computationalism [cf. (Piccinini 2008)]. See also Shagrir (2006).

  2. 2.

    Piccinini and Bahar (2013) distinguish three ways in which one might further spell out these semantic characterizations that would be adequate with respect to at least some systems or capacities. The three main senses of information processing which are taken to be relevant to theories of cognition are: (i) information as the measure of statistical dependency between a source and a receiver (cf. Weaver and Shannon 1963), (ii) natural semantic information or natural meaning (Dretske 1981), and (iii) non-natural semantic information (cf. Piccinini and Bahar 2013, pp. 455–456). See also Scarantino and Piccinini (2010).

  3. 3.

    For a detailed discussion, see (Piccinini and Bahar (2013), pp. 469–474).

  4. 4.

    For a more detailed criticism of the subjectivist reading of computationalism, see e.g., (Copeland 1996; Rey 1997; Piccinini 2007).

  5. 5.

    One reason for not making this type of commitment explicit might be the fact that whether or not any of these mechanisms actually exist and do what they have been proposed to do is still very much a matter of debate and each hypothesis comes with its associated degree of uncertainty. In fact, the same holds even for the hypothesis that spike trains are the primary vehicle of neural computation. Nevertheless, this fact should not blind us to the possibility that the same operation (described in computational terms) can be realized by multiple mechanisms in the nervous system from the level of individual synapses and spines, to those that require small populations of cells.

  6. 6.

    Cf. (Dayan and Abbott (2001), p. xiii), see also ft. 6.

  7. 7.

    An interesting question is whether this type of data-driven modeling can also be deemed to be explanatory. However, for present purposes I will follow the standard view that the affordances of data-driven analyses differ in important respects from those of theory driven computational modeling. For instance, Dayan and Abbott emphasize a similar point in distinguishing between descriptive, mechanistic, and interpretative models: ‘[d]escriptive models summarize large amounts of experimental data compactly yet accurately, thereby characterizing what neurons and neural circuits do. These models may be tested loosely on biophysical, anatomical, and physiological findings, but their primary purpose is to describe phenomena, not to explain them. Mechanistic models, on the other hand, address the question of how nervous systems operate on the basis of known anatomy, physiology, and circuitry. Such models often form a bridge between descriptive models couched at different levels. Interpretative models use computational and information-theoretic principles to explore the behavioral and cognitive significance of various aspects of nervous system function, addressing the question of why nervous systems operate as they do’ (Dayan and Abbott 2001, p. xiiii).

  8. 8.

    In support of this contention, Chirimuuta (2014) notes that a large body of literature addressing the methodological and explanatory concerns of computational neuroscience emphasizes the importance of abstraction and idealization for the purposes of modeling and explaining certain salient neural properties and/or patterns (e.g., Sejnowski et al. 1988; Steratt et al. 2011; Trappenberg 2010). That is, an important part of the community of computational neuroscientists seems to favor the hypothesis that at least in certain contexts, minimal models can provide better explanations of certain salient features of the complex neural systems being investigated.


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Correspondence to Maria Serban.

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Serban, M. The scope and limits of a mechanistic view of computational explanation. Synthese 192, 3371–3396 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-015-0709-1

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  • Neural computation
  • Mechanism
  • Explanation
  • Computational models