How does neuronal activity give rise to cognitive capacities? To address this question, neuroscientists hypothesize about what neurons “represent,” “encode,” or “compute,” and test these hypotheses empirically. This process is similar to the assessment of hypotheses in other fields of science and as such is subject to the same limitations and difficulties that have been discussed at length by philosophers of science. In this paper, we highlight an additional difficulty in the process of empirical assessment of hypotheses that is unique to the cognitive sciences. We argue that, unlike in other scientific fields, comparing hypotheses according to the extent to which they explain or predict empirical data can lead to absurd results. Other considerations, which are perhaps more subjective, must be taken into account. We focus on one such consideration, which is the purposeful function of the neurons as part of a biological system. We believe that progress in neuroscience critically depends on properly addressing this difficulty.
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- Biological function
- Competing hypotheses
- Neuronal computation
- Neuronal representation