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Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 14, Issue 3, pp 395–430 | Cite as

Fixing Content and Function in Neurobiological Systems: The Neuroethology of Electroreception

  • Brian L. Keeley
Article

Abstract

Are attributions of content and function determinate, or is there no fact of the matter to be fixed? Daniel Dennett has argued in favor of indeterminacy and concludes that, in practice, content and function cannot be fixed. The discovery of an electrical modality in vertebrates offers one concrete instance where attributions of function and content are supported by a strong scientific consensus. A century ago, electroreception was unimagined, whereas today it is widely believed that many species of bony fish, amphibians, sharks, skates, and rays possess this non-human sensory modality. A look at the history of science related to this discovery reveals a highly interdisciplinary endeavor, encompassing ethology, behavioral analysis, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. While each area provides important evidence, none is sufficient on its own to fix content and function. Instead, I argue that an interdisciplinary, neuroethological approach is required to carry out such determinations. Further, a detailed consideration of biological research suggests that while content and function claims are empirically underdetermined and uncertain, there is insufficient reason to believe in an additional problem of indeterminism. In particular, Dennett's indeterminism arises from a research methodology -- logical adaptationism -- that generates evidence from only one of the areas of neuroethology. However, logical adaptationism does not reflect adaptationism as it is practiced in contemporary biology. I conclude that Dennett is faced with a dilemma: On the one hand, he can hold to logical adaptationism and the indeterminism that results from it, while giving up the relevance of his arguments to biological practice. On the other, he can embrace a more accurate version of adaptationism -- one which plays a role in a larger neuroethological framework -- but from which no strong indeterminacy claims follow.

adaptationism Daniel C. Dennett electric fish electroreception evolution evolutionary function indeterminism mental content neuroethology sensory modality underdetermination 

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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brian L. Keeley
    • 1
  1. 1.Philosophy/Neuroscience/Psychology Program, Department of PhilosophyWashington UniversitySt. LouisU.S.A

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