Philosophy of Neuroscience

Phil 4212

Fall 2001

Professor: William Bechtel
Office:Busch 225F
Telephone: 935-6873
Office Hours: Monday, 2-4 PM, and by appointment

I. Course Description

This course focuses on the historical roots of neuroscience as well as its contemporary developments (especially those of cognitive neuroscience) from the perspective of philosophy of science and philosophy of mind. Topics include:
  1. the explanatory strategies in neuroscience (with a particular focus on the neuroscience of vision and neurolinguistics)
  2. the epistemology of the investigatory tools of neuroscience
  3. the relationship between neuroscience research and higher-level disciplines such as psychology
  4. the role representations play in cognitive neuroscience theories
  5. how neuroscience investigations approach the phenomenon of consciousness
The goal is for students to be able to reflect critically on research in neuroscience from a philosophical perspective. This requires not just learning what particular neuroscientists or philosophers have said about neuroscience inquiry, but also formulating, testing, and defending one's own views.

II. Course Requirements

This class will be conducted partly as a seminar. That means that students are responsible for all readings and for taking an active role in discussions. In addition, each student is expected to do a class presentation either based on assigned readings or material related to that assigned. These presentations are not to be long and detailed--rather, they should focus attention on issues and provoke discussion. They should not attempt to provide a detailed overview of what was in the reading. This presentation plus overall class participation will count for 10% of your grade. Written work for the course will consist of three papers, based primarily on the assigned readings. They may also bring in related material and class discussions, but the goal is thoughtful analysis, not citing as much literature as possible. For undergraduates, each of these papers should be approximately 5 pages in length and will count equally. For graduate students the first two papers should be approximately 5 pages in length, while the final paper should be approximately 10 pages in length. The last paper will count somewhat more than the shorter papers. Recommended topics for these papers will be presented in class. If possible, please turn your papers in in an electronic format, sending them by email attachment to

If you are taking this course pass/fail, it is necessary to earn the equivalent of a C- to receive a pass. Submitting work done by others as your own constitutes plagiarism. Plagiarism on any assignment will lead to a failing grade in the class.

III. Texts

Bechtel, W., Mandik, P., Mundale, J., and Stufflebeam, R. S. (eds.) (2001). Philosophy and the Neurosciences: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell
Bechtel, W. (1988). Philosophy of science: An overview for cognitive science. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Web Resources:
Milestones in Neurosciences
The Brain Project
Philosophy and the Neurosciences
Neuroscience Tutorial
The Whole Brain Atlas
Mind and Body
Robert Young's Mind, Brain, and Adaptation in the 19th Century

IV. Readings and Schedule of Classes


August 27: What is Explanation? D-N vs. Mechanistic Models

Reading: Chapter 1: Philosophy Meets the Neurosciences (Bechtel, Mandik, and Mundale)
September 10: The Epistemology of Neuroscience Data
Reading: Chapter 4: Epistemic Issues in Procuring Evidence about the Brain:  The Importance of  Research Instruments and Techniques (Bechtel and Stufflebeam)

Recommended Readings:

September 17: Carving the Brain: Neurons and Brain Regions
Required Reading: Chapter 3: Neuroanatomical Foundations of Cognition: Connecting the Neuronal Level with the Study of Higher Brain Areas (Mundale)

Recommended Readings:

September 24: Theorizing About the Brain
Required Reading: Chapter 2: Brain Metaphor and Brain Theory (Daugman)

Recommended Reading:

October 1: Reduction and Coevolution of Levels
Required Reading: Chapter 22. , Intertheoretic Reduction: A Neuroscientistís Field Guide (Churchland and Churchland)
Chapter 23: Explanatory Pluralism and the  Co-evolution of Theories of Science (McCauley)
Chapter 24: McCauley's Demand for a Co-level Competitor. (Churchland and Churchland)

October 8: Classic Aphasia Studies: Broca and Wernicke

Required Reading: Chapter 5: Remarks on the Seat of the Faculty of Articulate Language, Followed by an Observation of Aphemia (Broca)
Chapter 6: Recent Works on Aphasia. (Wernicke)

First Paper Due

October 15: Modern Aphasia Studies: From Geschwind to the Present
Required Reading: Chapter 9: Linking Cognition and Brain: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Language (Bechtel)

Recommended Readings:

October 22: New approaches to Neural Linguistics
must be rescheduled
Required Reading: Chapter 7: The Processing of Single Words Studied with Positron Emission Tomography (Petersen and Fiez)
Chapter 8: Modularity, domain specificity and the development of language (Bates)

Recommended Readings:

Neuroscience of Vision

October 29: Differentiating Visual Areas: From Lesion Studies to Single Cell Studies

Required Readings: Chapter 10: Brain Mechanisms of Vision. (Hubel and Wiesel)
Chapter 13: Decomposing and Localizing Vision: An Exemplar for Cognitive Neuroscience (Bechtel)
November 5: The Legacy of Two Pathways
Required Readings: Chapter 11: Object Vision and Spatial Vision: Two Cortical Pathways (Mishkin, Ungerleider, and Macko)
Chapter 12. Neural mechanisms of Form and Motion Processing in the Primate Visual System (van Essen and Gallant)

Recommended Readings:

Are There Representations in the Brain?

November 12: The Positive Response

Required Reading: Chapter 18. Representations: From Neural systems to Cognitive Systems (Bechtel)
Chapter 19. The Architecture of Representation (Grush)

Second Paper Due

November 19: The Negative Response
Required Reading: Chapter 20. Of Sensory Systems and the 'Aboutness' of Mental States (Akins)
Chapter 21. Brain Matters: A case Against Representations in the Brain (Stufflebeam)

Recommended Readings:

Consciousness and the Brain

November 26: Where are Phenomenal Properties Experienced?

Required Reading: Chapter 14: Consciousness and Neuroscience (Crick and Koch)
Chapter 15. A Neurofunctional Theory of Visual Consciousness (Prinz)
December 3: Pain and Subjectivity
Required Reading: Chapter 16. The Nature of Pain (Hardcastle)
Chapter 17. The Neurobiology and Philosophy of Subjectivity (Mandik)
December 10: Final Paper Due