Phil 151
Philosophy of Neuroscience
Spring 2023, Mon. and Wed., 5:00-6:20
Warren Lecture Hall 2114

Professor: William Bechtel Office Hours:  Monday, 3:30-4:45 & by appointment
Office: RWAC 0455 Email:
Telephone: 822-4461 Webpage:

1. Course Description

Understanding brains, whether in humans or other animals, remains one of the greatest challenges in science. Still, enormous progress has been made as neuroscientists have developed a wide range of research tools for investigating the brain and theoretical perspectives in terms of which they interpret the results of those investigations. This course approaches neuroscience from the perspective of philosophy of science, seeking to understand the strategies scientists use and the character of the knowledge obtained. To understand how current knowledge was obtained, we will examine major examples from the history of neuroscience. We will also, though, be interested in strategies neuroscients are currently pursuing or those they might pursue in the future. The objective in examining the research in neuroscience is not to learn all the details of the research, but to put it into perspective. In reading the assignments, you should not focus on memorization, but on figuring out and characterizing how the research is being conducted. Philosophy involves formulating questions, offering possible answers, and critically assessing these answers. It is an activity, not just a body of knowledge and like all activities, is learned through practice. There will be many opportunities for class discussion during the quarter (not just on classes marked as discussion classes), and you should take advantage of these by trying out questions, answers, and criticisms.

2. Course Requirements

Class attendance is required. Missing classes more than very occasionally will result in a reduction in your grade. To get the most out of the class, it is absolutely essential that you come to class having read the assigned material and being prepared to discuss it. This does not mean that you are expected to understand everything in the assigned reading prior to class. Part of the function of classes will be to clarify and interpret the assigned readings. Clickers will be used in class. Some clicker questions will test basic ideas from the assigned reading. On these questions, one point will be awarded for answering the question and a second point for answering correctly. Other questions will not have a specific answer designated and will serve to foster discussion. Two points will be awarded for answering each such question. A cumulative score based on clicker responses will count for 10% of your final grade.

To promote engagement with the reading and to foster subsequent discussions in class, you will be required to email comments or questions for those classes marked with an asterisk on the Schedule of Class Meetings and Readings below. These emails should be one paragraph in length. You can write about anything you found interesting, puzzling, strange, clearly wrong, provocative, etc. When there are readings assigned on the day of the assignment, the assignment should address one of the readings. If the assignment falls on a discussion class, the assignment should address the readings in the classes since the last discussion class. These assignments will be graded as acceptable or unacceptable (if a submission is unacceptable, I will make that clear in the response, usually with a warning first). To ensure that your submission is acceptable, your comment or question must demonstrate that you have read and thought about the assigned material. (Your paragraph should focus on one specific part of the reading--do not try to discuss everything.) These must be submitted as email (as plain text, not as attachments) to by 8PM on the day before the classes marked with an asterisk in the schedule of classes below. 10% of your final grade will be based on these email comments.

There will be two exams, a mid-term and a final. The mid-term will count for 25% of your final grade; the final will count for 30%. Exams will include both short answer and essay questions and the set of questions will be distributed approximately one week before the exams. You will also need to write one 3-5 page paper that will count for 25% of your grade. The paper, due by 5PM on Friday, May 26, must be on one of the topics that will be assigned in class. If possible, the paper should be submitted in Word by email attachment (please be sure to check for viruses before submitting your file!) to

Above average participation in class discussions can result in a raising your final grade from what is determined by the above percentages on these other assignments.

3. Texts

All reading assignments can be found by following links on the web site. See the schedule of classes and readings below. Those items that are on license to UCSD may only be available if you are on campus or set up a virtual private network (directions on doing so are available through UCSD Library).

If you do not already own one, you will also need to purchase an i>clicker student response transmitter. These transmitters, informally called “clickers,” are available at the UCSD bookstore. Make sure to get an i>clicker and not a different system (e.g., H-ITT or PRS).

4. Academic honesty

Integrity of scholarship is essential for an academic community. The University expects that both faculty and students will honor this principle and in so doing protect the validity of University intellectual work. For students, this means that all academic work must be done by the individual who submits it, without unauthorized aid of any kind. This means that on exams you will not use any external resources, including crib sheets, cell phones, etc. All papers, emails, etc., that you submit must be written by you in your own words. If you need to quote someone, be sure to use quotation marks and identify the source. In preparing for exams, papers, etc., you are encouraged to work with your peers. But the actual writing must be yours. You may ask others to read and provide feedback on your writing, but they should not re-write the text for you. Rather, they can provide comments and you undertake the rewriting.

5. Schedule of Classes and Readings

Note: This schedule of reading assignments is tentative and subject to revision. When slides from lectures are available, there will be a link from the lecture title to the pdf file. Dates with asterisks are dates on which comments/question paragraphs on the reading are due. These comments/questions must be sent to by 8PM on the evening before the class.

Readings designated Section are from William Bechtel and Linus Huang (2022), Philosophy of Neuroscience, Cambridge Elements. A full pdf of the book can be download for free (when on campus or using vpn to the campus) from Or you can follow the links to the individual readings.

April 3: Introduction. The Challenge in Thinking about the Brain (Section 1

Unit 1: Discovering the basic components of the brain

April 5: Neurons (Section 2.0-2.1)                 

Mundale, J. (2001) Neuroanatomical Foundations of Cognition: Connecting the Neuronal Level with the Study of Higher Brain Areas. Chapter 3, pp. 37-54 of Philosophy and the Neurosciences: A Reader. Edited by William Bechtel, Pete Mandik, Jennifer Mundale, and Robert Stufflebeam. Oxford: Blackwell.

Huxley, A. F. (2002). From overshoot to voltage clamp. Trends in Neuroscience, 25, 553-558. (emphasize first two pages and the Discussion section, skimming the rest)

*April 10: From Neurons to Brains (Sections (2.2-2.3)

Keijzer, F., van Duijn, M., & Lyon, P. (2013). What nervous systems do: early evolution, input-output, and the skin brain thesis. Adaptive Behavior, 21, 67-85. 

April 12: Mapping the neocortex (Sections 2.4-2.5)

Brodmann, K. (1909/1994). Localization in the cerebral cortex (L. J. Garvey, Trans.). New York: Springer. Selections

*April 17: Discussion Class

Unit 2: Studying What Brains Do

April 19: Studying the brain 1. Lesion and stimulation studies (Sections 3.0-3.2)

Gall, Francis (1804). Letter from Dr. F. J. Gall, to Joseph Fr[eiherr] von Retzer, upon the Functions of the Brain, in Man and Animals.
Broca, Paul (1861). Remarks on the Seat of the Faculty of Articulate Language, Followed by an Observation of AphemiaBulletin de la Société Anatomique6, 330-357.

*April 24: Studying the brain 2. Recording studies (Section 3.3-3.6)

Hubel, D. H. and Wiesel, T. N. (1979). Brain Mechanisms of VisionScientific American, 241, 150-162.

Raichle, M. E. (2015). The restless brain: how intrinsic activity organizes brain function. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 370(1668), 82-92 (especially sections 1-3). 

April 26: Studying the Brain 3. Model organisms: Bacteria, worms, and flies (Section 4)

Bargmann, C. I. (2012). Beyond the connectome: How neuromodulators shape neural circuits. BioEssays, 34(6), 458-465. doi:Doi 10.1002/Bies.201100185

OPTIONAL Muñoz-Dorado, J., Marcos-Torres, F. J., García-Bravo, E., Moraleda-Muñoz, A., & Pérez, J. (2016). Myxobacteria: Moving, Killing, Feeding, and Surviving Together. Frontiers in Microbiology, 7(781). doi:10.3389/fmicb.2016.00781. Emphasize the first 5 pages, skim the next 6, and don't worry about the remainder.

*May 1: Discussion Class

May 3: Midterm Exam

Unit 3: Explanations in Neuroscience 

May 8: Discoveries and Mechanistic Explanation (Sections 5 and 6.0-6.1

*May 10: Explaining Without Mechanisms? (Section 6.2-6.6)

Chemero, A. (2001). Dynamical explanation and mental representations. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5, 141-142.

Sporns, O. (2013). Network attributes for segregation and integration in the human brain. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23(2), 162-171

May 15:   Levels and Reduction (Section 7)

Marr, D. C. (1982). Vision:  A computation investigation into the human representational system and processing of visual information. San Francisco: Freeman, chapter 1

Bickle, J. (2007). Ruthless reductionism and social cognition. Journal of Physiology-Paris, 101(4), 230-235

*May 17: Discussion Class

Unit 4: What is Represented in the Brain?

May 22: Representation 1 (Section 8.0-8.2)

Egan, F. (2010). Computational models: a modest role for content. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 41(3), 253-259

*May 24: Representation 2 (Section 8.3-8.4)

Akins, K. (1996). On sensory systems and the 'aboutness' of mental states. The Journal of Philosophy, 93, 337-372. Focus on Section II.

May 26: Paper due (5pm): Send to

May 29: Memorial Day, no class

Unit 5: Human Brains and Human Life

*May 31: What is distinctive about neocortex? (Section 9)

Lupyan, G., & Clark, A. (2015). Words and the World: Predictive Coding and the Language-Perception-Cognition Interface. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(4), 279-284.

Cisek, P., & Thur, D. (2018). Neural Circuits for Action Selection. In D. Corbetta & M. Santello (Eds.), Reach-to-Grasp Behavior: Brain, Behavior, and Modelling Across the Life Span (pp. 91-118). New York: Routledge

June 5: Heterarchy and What does neuroscience teach us about who we are? ((Section 10-11)

*June 7: Discussion Class

June 12: Final exam (7:00-10:00pm)