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Simulation and Counterfactual Reasoning in Neuroscience

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PI: Prof. Dr. Marcel Weber, Department of Philosophy, Université de Genève

Ph.D. Student: Michal Hladky, M.A., Department of Philosophy, Université de Genève

 

This project will investigate the role of simulations as a form of counterfactual reasoning in the contemporary neurosciences. It will focus in particular on the use of computer simulations in order to produce models of brain architecture and function, not so much in order to simulate cognitive processes as such ("weak" rather than "strong" Artificial Intelligence according to a distinction proposed by Searle in 1980). In classical computational neuroscience, action potentials are modeled by computing numerical solutions to mathematical equations such as the Hodgkin-Huxley (HH) equations, which do not admit of analytical solutions. This approach mirrors the traditional use of computer simulations in other areas of science, e.g., physics, climate science or economics. However, in contemporary neuroscience there is also a bewildering variety of other simulation techniques that may or may not resemble the traditional approach. These techniques have rarely been examined from a philosophy of science point of view.


This project will closely investigate the simulation practices of contemporary neuroscience. A first goal will be to provide a survey of different uses of simulation in the contemporary neurosciences. In a second stage, it will treat these simulations as providing scientists with specific counterfactual conditionals the antecedents of which are modeling assumptions and the consequents describe some possible neurological state, structure or process. This counterfactual analysis will be used in a third stage to provide a more integrative view of the different scientific activities of simulation, modeling, experimentation and thought experiments. The relationship between these different scientific techniques has been controversially discussed in the philosophical literature. Viewing them all as involving some kind of counterfactuality will enable us to better understand the commonalities as well as differences with respect to their epistemic role.