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The two visual systems hypothesis and contrastive underdetermination

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This paper concerns local yet systematic problems of contrastive underdetermination of model choice in cognitive neuroscience debates about the so-called two visual systems hypothesis. The underdetermination problem is systematically generated by the way certain assumptions about the representationalist nature of computation are translated into experimental practice. The problem is that behavioural data underdetermine the choice between competing representational models. In this paper, I diagnose how these assumptions generate underdetermination problems in the choice between competing functional models of perception–action. Using the tools of philosophy of science, I describe the type of underdetermination and sketch a possible cure.

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  1. 1.

    This seems to have been the situation in the 70–80s debates about the choice between serial and parallel processing models of attention and executive control (see Townsend 1990). The same kind of “despair” was manifest in the mental imagery debate in the 90s before the boom of brain imaging techniques (Ganis and Schendan 2011). This also seems to have been the situation in the debates between theory–theory and simulation-theory about mind-reading in social cognitive neuroscience (Apperly 2008).

  2. 2.

    The present paper is related to but is importantly different from the argument in Grünbaum (2017). As in my (2017) paper, the present paper points to problems of empirically distinguishing between two different functional models of visuomotor processing. Grünbaum (2017) located the cause of the problems in a set of metaphysical assumptions about the individuation of computational mechanisms. The present paper focuses on a different set of problematic methodological assumptions. The present paper locates parts of the cause of the underdetermination problem in the way in which certain computationalist assumptions are translated into experimental practice. Furthermore, where the 2017-paper placed the discussion in the context of philosophical arguments about consciousness, the present paper places the discussion in the broader context of model-choice and underdetermination by data in philosophy of science. Seen in this context, the importance of the contribution in the present paper is threefold: (1) I provide a new analysis of common methodological assumptions in cognitive psychology; (2) I use insights from philosophy of science to describe forms of underdeterminations and their consequences for model choice in a domain of cognitive neuroscience; and (3) I use the empirical literature surrounding the TVSH to describe a form of underdetermination often overlooked by philosophers of science (local but systematic underdetermination).

  3. 3.

    Though practical underdetermination might be unproblematic for the scientific realist, it is by no means a trivial or theoretically uninteresting phenomenon. For some discussion, see Biddle (2013).

  4. 4.

    The terminology is from Stanford (2017).

  5. 5.

    See, Stanford (2001, 2006) and Tulodziecki (2013). Stanford convincingly argues that the algorithmic version (Kukla 1996) of contrastive underdetermination is a form of global skepticism and is too remote from the practice of actual science. I therefore set aside this kind of contrastive underdetermination. In recent discussions of underdetermination of psychological models by fMRI data, Loosemore and Harley (2010) present a close cousin of Kukla’s argument. They invent a toy model and argues that it and standard models are equivalent relative fMRI data. Bechtel and Richarson (2010) rightly argues that the toy model used by Loosemore and Harley is a purely imaginary construct and has nothing to do with real science. Hence, the underdetermination of the choice between the toy model and the standard psychological models has no consequence for the standard models and the use of fMRI data.

  6. 6.

    Important cases include theory choices concerning formalism, ontology and methodology in quantum mechanics (Belousek 2005), the absolute state of rest in Newtonian physics (van Frassen 1980, pp. 46–47), and models in cosmology (Butterfield 2012).

  7. 7.

    Concerning TVSH’s influence on cognitive neuroscience, see substantial review chapters in prominent handbooks (Goodale 2014; Goodale and Ganel 2015; Westwood 2009). Concerning the influence on philosophy, see debates about the nature of perception and its content (Briscoe 2008; Ferretti 2018; Matthen 2005; Wu 2014), the nature and function of consciousness (Brogaard 2011; Clark 2001), the nature of action and control (Clark 2007; Kozuch 2015; Mole 2009; Wallhagen 2007; Wu 2013), the nature and status of folk-psychology (Bermúdez 2006; Grünbaum 2012), and the interface problem (Butterfill and Sinigaglia 2014; Mylopoulos and Pacherie 2017; Shepherd 2017).

  8. 8.

    The anatomical model is endorsed by proponents of TVSH (Ganel and Goodale 2017). At present, it is hard to tell whether they are right to do so. Even if the strict anatomical division into separate processing streams has been challenged recently (see, for instance, Galletti and Fattori 2018; Rossetti et al. 2017), the anatomical model is supported by data from anatomical, electrophysiological, and psychophysical studies mainly with monkeys (for reviews, see Culham and Valyear 2006; Kravitz et al. 2011).

  9. 9.

    A 1-system model of perception–action has been defended by Franz et al. (2000), Franz and Gegenfurtner (2008), Christiansen et al. (2014), de la Malla et al. (2018), and Medendorp et al. (2018).

  10. 10.

    This claim is controversial. See Piccinini (2015). It is generally assumed in the target debate under consideration. See Grünbaum (2017).

  11. 11.

    For discussion, see Salmon (1990), Sober (1999, 2008, Ch. 1).

  12. 12.

    By “computational model” I mean a functional model of a supposed computational system. I do not use the term in the sense of a mathematical “representation of the natural system” (Palminteri et al. 2017). Only some computational models in the latter sense are models of supposed computational systems.

  13. 13.

    A general version of this argument was proposed and discussed in detail by Anderson (1978).

  14. 14.

    This makes the underdetermination transient in Laudan and Leplin’s (1991) sense.

  15. 15.

    Evidence for the mutual independence of the anatomical and functional models also comes from the fact that there are some studies that seem to support a version of the functional model of TVSH while rejecting the anatomical model (e.g., Freud et al. 2016) and some studies reject the functional model while accepting the anatomical one (e.g., Christiansen et al. 2014).

  16. 16.

    Proponents of TVSH often assume that pantomime grasping and grasping 2D shapes are driven by the ventral system. See Freud and Ganel (2015).

  17. 17.

    According to Popov et al. (2018), just like univariate activity-based methods, multivariate information-based methods can tell us something about where information is represented or processed but very little about how the information is represented or processed.

  18. 18.

    It is important to notice that I have not presented a general argument against the use of neuroimaging data to constrain and qualify psychological processing models. In many cases, anatomical and physiological data should play a role in developing psychological models (Bechtel and Richarson 2010; McGeer 2007), and, given rival models, all kinds of predicted observational consequences are potentially relevant (Henson 2005). The underdetermination problems I have presented are relative to the choice between perception–action models in the debates about TVSH.

  19. 19.

    This might not alleviate ontological anti-realism motivated by the concerns of Hacking (1982). According to Hacking, only the possibility of manipulation and use of an entity gives us reason to postulate that it exists.

  20. 20.

    This seems to be the position of Dennett (1987). It might also be the position of Shagrir (2010).


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The author is indebted to Adrian Alsmith, Somogy Varga, and a number of reviewers for the journal. I am in particular grateful to reviewer 1 for insisting on larger revisions and providing me with advice and literature. The ideas have been presented at workshops and seminars in Copenhagen, St. Andrews, Oxford, Aarhus, and I am grateful for the feedback I received on those occasions.

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Correspondence to Thor Grünbaum.

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Grünbaum, T. The two visual systems hypothesis and contrastive underdetermination. Synthese (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-01984-y

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  • Two visual systems hypothesis
  • Contrastive underdetermination
  • Scientific realism
  • Model choice
  • Confirmation theory
  • Experimental methodology
  • Philosophy of cognitive science
  • Philosophy of science