John Bickle[1]

New mechanical philosophy, or ‘new mechanism’ — ‘a framework for thinking about the philosophical assumptions underlying many areas of science, especially in sciences such as biology, neuroscience, and psychology’ (Craver and Tabery, 2015) — now entering its third decade, took philosophy of science by storm. Lately, however, challenges have multiplied. Can new mechanism still be given a robust and detailed exposition, from its basic metaphysics to its picture of what contemporary mechanistic sciences offer? Focusing on the cognitive neurosciences, a field in which new mechanism has seemed at home since its inception, Gualtiero Piccinini seeks to pro­vide such an exposition in his Neurocognitive Mechanisms (Oxford University Press, 2020). Piccinini’s numerous previous publications have provided key steps in new mechanism’s development.

This author-meets-critics collection began as an American Philo­sophical Association Central Division group meeting of the Deep South Philosophy and Neuroscience Workgroup. We gathered a hand­ful of critics who approach mechanism from a broad range of philo­sophical perspectives and approaches. That meeting was held in February 2022, and featured all of the authors of papers in this collection. It starts with Piccinini’s overview of his book, in which he introduces his principal themes. John Bickle challenges Piccinini’s grounding of his account within a broader (and detailed) metaphysics, and urges Piccinini to stick to doing metascience of current cognitive neuroscience. Mazviita Chirimuuta insists that Piccinini overestimates the role of neural spiking in brain activity and underestimates the importance of chemical signalling within and between neurons, which generate problems for his account of neural computation. Carl Gillett recommends rejecting Piccinini’s new ‘aspect’ account of realization, along with the older ‘flat’ account, because both fail to accommodate two features we find in actual scientific practice — layers of indi­viduals or their powers, and the need to integrate models positing realization between properties and models positing composition between activities. Nico Orlandi questions the distinctiveness of Piccinini’s positive proposals concerning the status of special sciences and the notion of mental representation he finds at work in recent cognitive neuroscience. Piccinini responses to these specific challenges by clarifying and further developing his views on the importance of good metaphysics for doing good metascience, his egalitarian ontology of levels, his aspect view of realization, the need for neural computation to be medium independent and to remain broadly computational despite being affected by some medium-dependent phenomena, and his account of mental representation in terms of neural representation.

Overall, this collection usefully articulates one direction that new mechanism has developed specific to neuroscience, alongside some worries this development has spawned.


Craver, C. & Tabery, J. (2015) Mechanisms in science, in Zalta, E.N. (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, [Online], entries/science-mechanisms/ [24 May 2022].

[1]      Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi Medical Center, USA.

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