Behavioral and Brain Sciences

A neuron doctrine in the philosophy of neuroscience

Ian Gold a1a2 and Daniel Stoljar a3a4
a1 Institute of Advanced Studies, Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia
a2 Department of Ophthalmology, Royal Victoria Hospital, Room H414, 687 avenue des Pins ouest, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 1A1
a3 Department of Philosophy and Institute of Cognitive Science, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309
a4 Institute of Advanced Studies, Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia


Many neuroscientists and philosophers endorse a view about the explanatory reach of neuroscience (which we will call the neuron doctrine) to the effect that the framework for understanding the mind will be developed by neuroscience; or, as we will put it, that a successful theory of the mind will be solely neuroscientific. It is a consequence of this view that the sciences of the mind that cannot be expressed by means of neuroscientific concepts alone count as indirect sciences that will be discarded as neuroscience matures. This consequence is what makes the doctrine substantive, indeed, radical. We ask, first, what the neuron doctrine means and, second, whether it is true. In answer to the first question, we distinguish two versions of the doctrine. One version, the trivial neuron doctrine, turns out to be uncontroversial but unsubstantive because it fails to have the consequence that the nonneuroscientific sciences of the mind will eventually be discarded. A second version, the radical neuron doctrine, does have this consequence, but, unlike the first doctrine, is highly controversial. We argue that the neuron doctrine appears to be both substantive and uncontroversial only as a result of a conflation of these two versions. We then consider whether the radical doctrine is true. We present and evaluate three arguments for it, based either on general scientific and philosophical considerations or on the details of neuroscience itself, arguing that all three fail. We conclude that the evidence fails to support the radical neuron doctrine.

Key Words: Churchlands; classical conditioning; cognitive neuroscience; Kandel; learning; materialism; mind; naturalism; neurobiology; neuron doctrine; neurophilosophy; philosophy of neuroscience; psychology; reduction; theoretical unification.