Neuroscientific kinds through the lens of scientific practice

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Natural Kinds and Classification in Scientific Practice

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In this chapter, I argue that scientific practice in the neurosciences of cognition is not conducive to the discovery of natural kinds of cognitive capacities. The “neurosciences of cognition” include cognitive neuroscience and cognitive neurobiology, two research areas that aim to understand how the brain gives rise to cognition and behavior. Some philosophers of neuroscience have claimed that explanatory progress in these research areas ultimately will result in the discovery of the underlying mechanisms of cognitive capacities.1 Once such mechanistic understanding is achieved, cognitive capacities purportedly will be relegated into natural kind categories that correspond to real divisions in the causal structure of the world. I provide reasons here, however, to support the claim that the neurosciences of cognition currently are not on a trajectory for discovering natural kinds. As I explain, this has to do with how mechanistic explanations of cognitive capacities are developed. Mechanistic explanations and the kinds they explain are abstract representational by-products of the conceptual, experimental and integrative practices of neuroscientists. If these practices are not coordinated towards developing mechanistic explanations that mirror the causal structure of the world, then natural kinds of cognitive capacities will not be discovered. I provide reasons to think that such coordination is currently lacking in the neurosciences of cognition and indicate where changes in these practices appropriate to the natural kinds ideal would be required if it is indeed the goal. However, an evaluation of current practices in these research areas is suggestive that discovering natural kinds of cognitive capacities is simply not the goal.


This is a chapter in Kendig, C. (Ed.). (2015). Natural Kinds and Classification in Scientific Practice (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315619934

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