Mechanisms in psychology: ripping nature at its seams

Abstract

Recent extensions of mechanistic explanation into psychology suggest that cognitive models are only explanatory insofar as they map neatly onto, and serve as scaffolding for more detailed neural models. Filling in those neural details is what these accounts take the integration of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to mean, and they take this process to be seamless. Critics of this view have given up on cognitive models possibly explaining mechanistically in the course of arguing for cognitive models having explanatory value independent of how well they align with neural mechanisms. We can have things both ways, however. The problem with seamless integration accounts is their seamlessness, not that they take cognitive models to be mechanistic. A non-componential view of mechanisms allows for cognitive and neural models that cross cut one another, and for cognitive models that don’t decompose into parts. I illustrate the inadequacy of seamless accounts of integration by contrasting how “filter” models of attention in psychology and of sodium channels in neuroscience developed; by questioning whether the mappings generated by neuroimaging subtraction studies achieve integration; and by reinterpreting the evidence for cognitive models of memory having been successfully integrated with neural models. I argue that the integrations we can realistically expect are more partial, patchy, and full of loose threads than the mosaic unity Craver describes.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Integration has several other meanings, but here I restrict my use of it to this project of constructing models that combine knowledge from models at different ‘levels,’ in this case cognitive and neural.

  2. 2.

    Bechtel uses the term ‘integration’ in a broader sense that also includes relationships between scientists, institutions, instruments, experimental protocols, etc., in his work on integration (Bechtel 1986, 1993).

  3. 3.

    I think both are misunderstandings. See Stinson (2013).

  4. 4.

    Weiskopf (2011) has also critiqued Piccinini and Craver’s account of integration. I’m in agreement with many of his points, including that cognitive explanations may be non-componential, but unlike him, I do not want to claim that these explanations cannot also be mechanistic. I discuss this in Sect. 5.

  5. 5.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing me towards the latest research.

  6. 6.

    There are of course approaches to cognitive psychology that are not connected to information processing, and psychologists who eschew the use of flowcharts. Nevertheless, this has, at least until recently, been a dominant approach.

  7. 7.

    Of course Broadbent does not use the term ‘mechanism’ in the technical sense of the neo-mechanists.

  8. 8.

    fMRI methodology has recently moved on to more sophisticated methods than subtraction.

  9. 9.

    At this point it is unclear whether recent research on the neural mechanisms of attention vindicate Schneider and Shiffrin’s model or not. The latest publication on attention out of Schneider’s lab, using white-matter imaging and fMRI, claims to “provide critical evidence for the biased competition theory of attention” (Greenberg et al. 2012, p. 2781).

  10. 10.

    This leaves out some things we might want to call explanations, but when restricted to causal-mechanistic explanation seems uncontroversial.

  11. 11.

    Bechtel evidently does not support those claims, since he considers this episode a successful case of integration.

  12. 12.

    I have in mind something like the Barbour coat the Prince of Wales’s wore while mending hedges on TV, which was more patch than original, and led to a great hullabaloo in the British press over his habit of repairing old clothes belonging to long-dead kings, and having shoes made of leather dredged up from shipwrecks (Wallop 2013).

  13. 13.

    See Mitchell (2000) for a detailed elaboration of this sort of pluralist view.

  14. 14.

    Even if one objects to top-down causation, there remain several examples in this list that are not top-down.

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Acknowledgments

The first draft of this paper was written with the support of a predoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin in 2010–2011. Thanks are especially due to their wonderful library services. An earlier version formed part of Chapter 2 of my PhD Dissertation, “Cognitive Mechanisms and Computational Models: Explanation in Cognitive Neuroscience” at the University of Pittsburgh, 2013. Thanks to Peter Machamer, Ken Schaffner, Jim Bogen, Floh Thiels, and Boris Hennig for their helpful comments on the chapter. The final drafts were written with the support of a predoctoral fellowship at the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience, Eberhard Karls Universität T\(\ddot{\mathrm{u}}\)bingen. Thanks to the participants at the workshop, Explaining Mental Phenomena, held in T\(\ddot{\mathrm{u}}\)bingen on 24 July 2012, where I presented the paper, especially to Uljana Feest, who provided extended commentary.

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Stinson, C. Mechanisms in psychology: ripping nature at its seams. Synthese 193, 1585–1614 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-015-0871-5

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Keywords

  • Mechanism
  • Explanation
  • Integration
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Neuroscience