Skip to main content

The multiplicity of experimental protocols: a challenge to reductionist and non-reductionist models of the unity of neuroscience

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Aizawa K. (2007) The biochemistry of memory consolidation: A model system for the philosophy of mind. Synthese 155: 65–98

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bechtel W. (2007) Mental mechanisms: Philosophical perspectives on cognitive neuroscience. Lawrence Erlbaum, New York

    Google Scholar 

  3. Bechtel W., Stufflebeam R.S. (2001). Epistemic issues in procuring evidence about the brain: The importance of research instruments and techniques. In: Bechtel W., Mandik P., Mundale J., Stufflebeam R.S. (Eds). Philosophy and the neurosciences: A reader. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 55–81

    Google Scholar 

  4. Bickle J. (1998) Psychoneural reduction: The new wave. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bickle J. (2003) Philosophy and neuroscience: A ruthlessly reductive account. Kluwer Academic Publishing, Dordrecht

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bickle J. (2006) Reducing mind to molecular pathways: Explicating the reductionism implicit in current cellular and molecular neuroscience. Synthese 151: 411–434

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Bickle J. (2007) Ruthless reductionism and social cognition. Journal of Physiology-Paris 101: 230–235

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bielsky I., Hu S., Ren X., Terwilliger E., Young L. (2005) The V1a vasopressin receptor is necessary and sufficient for normal social recognition: A gene replacement study. Neuron 47: 503–513

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Bliss T., Lømo T. (1973) Long-lasting potentiation of synaptic transmission in the dentate area of the anaesthetized rabbit following stimulation of the perforant path. Journal of Physiology 232(2): 331–356

    Google Scholar 

  10. Bogen J. (2002) Epistemological custard pies from functional brain imaging. Philosophy of Science 69: S59–S71

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Bogen J., Woodward J. (1988) Saving the phenomena. The Philosophical Review 97: 303–352

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Bronfenbrenner U. (1979) The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  13. Brunswick E. (1943) Organismic achievement and environmental probability. The Psychological Review 50: 255–272

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Campbell D.D., Stanley J. (1963) Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for research. Rand-McNally, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  15. Cartwright N. (1991) Replicability, reproducibility and robustness: Comments on collins. History of Political Economy 23(1): 143–155

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Cartwright N. (1999) The dappled world: A study of the boundaries of science. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Churchland P.S. (1982) Mind brain reduction—new light from the philosophy of science. Neuroscience 7(5): 1041–1047

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Cook T.D., Campbell D.D. (1979) Quasi-experimentation: Design and analysis issues for field settings. Rand-McNally, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  19. Craver C. (2001) Role functions, mechanisms and hierarchy. Philosophy of Science 68: 31–55

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Craver C. (2002) Interlevel experiments and multilevel mechanisms in the neuroscience of memory. Philosophy of Science Supplement 69: S83–S97

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Craver C. (2003) The making of a memory mechanism. Journal of the History of Biology 36: 153–195

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Craver C. (2007) Explaining the brain: Mechanisms and the mosaic unity of neuroscience. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  23. Craver C., Darden L. (2001) Discovering mechanisms in neurobiology: The case of spatial memory. In: Machamer P.K., Grush R., McLaughlin P.(eds) Theory and method in the neurosciences. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh

    Google Scholar 

  24. Cronbach L., Meehl P. (1955) Construct validity in psychological tests. Psychological Bulletin 52: 281–302

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Dudek, S., & Fields, R. D. (2001). Mitogen-activated protein kinase/Extracellular signal-regulated kinase activation in somatodendritic compartments: Roles of action potentials, frequency, and mode of calcium entry. The Journal of Neuroscience, 21, RC122.

  26. English J.D., Sweatt J.D. (1996) Activation of p42 mitogen-activated protein kinase in hippocampal long-term potentiation. Journal of Biological Chemistry 271(40): 24329–24332

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. English J.D., Sweatt J.D. (1997) A requirement for the mitogen-activated protein kinase cascade in hippocampal long term potentiation. Journal of Biological Chemistry 272(31): 19103–19106

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Feest, U. (2003). Operationism, experimentation, and concept formation. Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.

  29. Ferguson J., Aldag M., Insel T., Young L. (2001) Oxytocin in the medial amygdala is essential for social recognition in the mouse. Journal of Neuroscience 21(20): 8278–8285

    Google Scholar 

  30. Ferguson J.N., Young L.J., Insel T.R. (2002) The neuroendocrine basis of social recognition. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 23: 200–224

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Franklin A. (1986) The neglect of experiment. Cambridge University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  32. Franklin A. (1999) Can that be right?: Essays on experiment, evidence, and science. Kluwer, Boston

    Google Scholar 

  33. Giovannini M., Blitzer R., Wong T., Asoma K., Tsokas P., Morrison J., Iyengar R., Landau E. (2001) Mitogen-activated protein kinase regulates early phosphorylation and delayed expression of Ca2+ Calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II in long-term potentiation. Journal of Neuroscience 21(18): 7053–7062

    Google Scholar 

  34. Goldman A. (1988) Epistemology and cognition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  35. Guala F. (2003) Experimental localism and external validity. Philosophy of Science Supplement 70: 1195–1205

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Guala F. (2005) The methodology of experimental economics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  37. Hacking I. (1983) Representing and intervening. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  38. Hacking I. (1992) The self-vindication of the laboratory sciences. In: Pickering A.(eds) Science as practice and culture. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  39. Hummler, E., Cole, T., Blendy, J., Ganss, R., Aguzzi, A., Schmid, W., Beerman, F., & Schutz, G. (1994). Targeted mutation of the CREB gene: Compensation within the CREB/ATF family of transcription factors. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (Vol. 91, pp. 5647–5651).

  40. Impey S., Obrietan K., Storm D.R. (1999) Making new connections: Role of ERK/MAP kinase signaling in neuronal plasticity. Neuron 23: 11–14

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Kogan J.H., Frankland P.W., Blendy J.A., Coblentz J., Marowitz Z., Shüz G., Silva A.J. (1997) Spaced training induces normal long-term memory in CREB mutant mice. Current Biology 7(1): 1–11

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Kogan J.H., Frankland P.W., Silva A.J. (2000) Long-term memory underlying hippocampus- dependent social recognition in mice. Hippocampus 10(1): 47–56

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Latour B. (1988) The pateurization of France. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  44. Loorende Jong H. (2006) Explicating pluralism: Where the mind to molecular pathway gets off-track. Synthese 151(3): 435–443

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Mayo D. (1991) Novel evidence and severe tests. Philosophy of Science 58: 523–552

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Mayo D. (1996) Error and the growth of experimental knowledge. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  47. Mayo D. (2000) Experimental practice and an error statistical account of evidence. Philosophy of Science 67(3): S193–S207

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Messick S. (1989) Validity. In: Linn R.L.(eds) Educational measurement, 3rd ed. Macmillan, New York, pp 13–103

    Google Scholar 

  49. Mitchell S. (2003) Biological complexity and integrative pluralism. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  50. Mitchell S., Dietrich M. (2006) Integration without unification: An argument for pluralism in the biological sciences. American Naturalist 168: S73–S79

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Nagel E. (1961) The structure of science: Problems in the logic of scientific explanation. Harcourt, Brace and World, New York

    Google Scholar 

  52. Richter K., Wolf G., Engelmann M. (2005) Social recognition memory requires two stages of protein synthesis in mice. Learning and Memory 12: 407–413

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Schouten M., Loorende Jong H. (2005) Ruthless reductionism. Philosophical Psychology 18(4): 473–486

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Selcher J.C., Weeber E.J., Christian J., Nekrasova T., Landreth G., Sweatt J.D. (2003). A Role for ERK MAP Kinase in Physiological Temporal Integration in Hippocampal Area CA1. Learning and Memory 1: 26–39

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Shadish W., Cook T., Campbell D. (2002) Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for generalized causal inference. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston

    Google Scholar 

  56. Sullivan, J., Memory consolidation, multiple realization and modest reductions. Philosophy of Science Supplement (in press).

  57. Sullivan, J. (2003). Regulation of extracellular signal-regulated kinase during long-term potentiation in area CA1 of the rat hippocampus in vivo. Master’s Thesis, University of Pittsburgh.

  58. Sullivan, J. (2007). Reliability and validity of experiment in the neurobiology of learning and memory. Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.

  59. Taylor C. (1964) Explanation of behavior. Prometheus, Amherst, NY

    Google Scholar 

  60. Thor D.H., Holloway W.R. (1982) Social memory of the male laboratory rat. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 96(6): 1000–1006

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Watabe A.M., Zaki P.A., O’Dell T.J. (2000) Coactivation of β-adrenergic and cholinergic receptors enhances the induction of long-term potentiation and synergistically activates mitogen-activated protein kinase in the hippocampal CA1 region. The Journal of Neuroscience 20(16): 5924–5931

    Google Scholar 

  62. Wimsatt W. (1981). Robustness, reliability, and overdetermination. In: Brewer M.B., Collins B.E. (Eds). Scientific inquiry and the social sciences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Woodward J. (1989) Data and phenomena. Synthese 79: 393–472

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Woodward J. (2000) Data, phenomena and reliability. Philosophy of Science 67(3): S163–S179

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jacqueline A. Sullivan.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Sullivan, J.A. The multiplicity of experimental protocols: a challenge to reductionist and non-reductionist models of the unity of neuroscience. Synthese 167, 511 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-008-9389-4

Download citation

Keywords

  • Experiment
  • Experimentation
  • Explanation
  • Learning
  • Long-term potentiation (LTP)
  • Mechanism
  • Protocol
  • Reduction
  • Reliability
  • Unity
  • Validity