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Recharacterizing scientific phenomena

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In this paper, I investigate how researchers evaluate their characterizations of scientific phenomena. Characterizing phenomena is an important – albeit often overlooked – aspect of scientific research, as phenomena are targets of explanation and theorization. As a result, there is a lacuna in the literature regarding how researchers determine whether their characterization of a target phenomenon is appropriate for their aims. This issue has become apparent for accounts of scientific explanation that take phenomena to be explananda. In particular, philosophers who endorse mechanistic explanation suggest that the discovery of the mechanisms that explain a phenomenon can lead to its recharacterization. However, they fail to make clear how these explanations provide warrant for recharacterizing their explananda phenomena. Drawing from cases of neurobiological research on potentiation phenomena, I argue that attempting to explain a phenomenon may provide reason to suspend judgment about its characterization, but this cannot provide warrant to recharacterize it if researchers cannot infer a phenomenon’s characteristics from this explanation. To explicate this, I go beyond explanation – mechanistic or otherwise – to analyze why and how researchers change their epistemic commitments in light of new evidence.

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  1. Unless otherwise specified, all references are to Craver and Darden 2013.

  2. This is an idealization; researchers do not have strict criteria when they have sufficient evidence to accept a phenomenon’s characterization, nor is there a sharp distinction between accurate and inaccurate characterizations. Nevertheless, researchers converge upon a judgment of what evidence is sufficient, and what degree of accuracy is desired.

  3. These epistemic attitudes can be conceived of as continuous rather than as a trichotomy. Something like tweaking could be thought of as a practice based on an attitude that lies between suspending judgment and rejection.

  4. Research on LTP was motivated by research – such as studies on H.M. – that suggested that the hippocampus is responsible for memory formation. However, Lømo himself did not test the relation between LTP and memory (Lømo 2003).

  5. LTP research continued in earnest, as researchers faced difficulties developing experimental paradigms to investigate the molecular basis of this phenomenon (Nicoll 2017, 281).

  6. They also note, “the brain region, the neuron type in that region, and types of inputs that synapse on a particular neuron type are all major determinants of the type of LTP” (Blundon and Zakharenko 2008, 599).

  7. The aim of developing characterizations and explanations of phenomena into a theory that “can be used together to describe, predict, explain, and test aspects” of a target of investigation is also an idea shared by mechanists (Craver 2007, 175).

  8. LTP is not the only example of recharacterization in the way that I describe. The case of H.M. is not one in which a phenomenon’s characterization was split based on mechanistic explanations. This is because, short of determining that procedural memory did not involve the activity of the hippocampus, the distinction of the two was determined before either were explained. It seems more plausible that procedural and declarative memory were split because the phenomena associated with them were distinguished from one another.


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Thanks to William Bechtel, Liam Kofi Bright, Mazviita Chirimuuta, Eric Hochstein, Edouard Machery, Kenneth Schaffner, Jacqueline Sullivan, and James Woodward for comments on previous versions of this paper. A draft of this this paper was presented at the 2018 meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. Thanks to those who provided me feedback at this session, and to Sara Aronowitz for her commentary. This paper was also presented as part of the Neural Mechanisms Webconference. Thanks to those who provided me feedback during this web session.

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Correspondence to David Colaço.

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Colaço, D. Recharacterizing scientific phenomena. Euro Jnl Phil Sci 10, 14 (2020).

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