Philosophical foundations of neuroeconomics: economics and the revolutionary challenge from neuroscience

Dissertation, London School of Economics (2011)
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This PhD thesis focuses on the philosophical foundations of Neuroeconomics, an innovative research program which combines findings and modelling tools from economics, psychology and neuroscience to account for human choice behaviour. The proponents of Neuroeconomics often manifest the ambition to foster radical modifications in the accounts of choice behaviour developed by its parent disciplines. This enquiry provides a philosophically informed appraisal of the potential for success and the relevance of neuroeconomic research for economics. My central claim is that neuroeconomists can help other economists to build more predictive and explanatory models, yet are unlikely to foster revolutionary modifications in the economic theory of choice. The contents are organized as follows. In chapters 1-2, I present neuroeconomists’ investigative tools, distinguish the most influential approaches to neuroeconomic research and reconstruct the case in favour of a neural enrichment of economic theory. In chapters 3-7, I combine insights from neuro-psychology, economic methodology and philosophy of science to develop a systematic critique of Neuroeconomics. In particular, I articulate four lines of argument to demonstrate that economists are provisionally justified in retaining a methodologically distinctive approach to the modelling of decision making. My first argument points to several evidential and epistemological concerns which complicate the interpretation of neural data and cast doubt on the inferences neuroeconomists often make in their studies. My second argument aims to show that the trade-offs between the modelling desiderata that neuroeconomists and other economists respectively value severely constrain the incorporation of neural insights into economic models. My third argument questions neuroeconomists’ attempts to develop a unified theory of choice behaviour by identifying some central issues on which they hold contrasting positions. My fourth argument differentiates various senses of the term ‘revolution’ and illustrates that neuroeconomists are unlikely to provide revolutionary contributions to economic theory in any of these senses.



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Roberto Fumagalli
King's College London

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Anarchy, State, and Utopia.Robert Nozick - 1974 - New York: Basic Books.
Reasons and Persons.Derek Parfit - 1984 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.Thomas S. Kuhn - 1962 - Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Edited by Ian Hacking.

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