Understanding the development and use of tools in neuroscience: the case of the tungsten micro-electrode

Synthese 200 (6):1-22 (2022)
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The philosophical interest in experimental practice in neuroscience has brought renewed attention to the study of the development and use of techniques and tools for data production. John Bickle has argued that the construction and progression of theories in neuroscience are entirely dependent on the development and ingenious use of research tools. In Bickle's account, theory plays a tertiary role, as it depends on what the tools allow researchers to manipulate, and the tools, in turn, are developed not in order to test theories but as solutions to engineering problems. However, Bickle's account is not entirely precise in explaining what informs researchers' decision-making in their atheoretical laboratory tinkering. Identifying the sources that guide researchers in tool development and use is crucial if one wishes to contribute to the philosophical or meta-scientific understanding of experimental practice in neuroscience. In the following paper, I claim that decision-making in tools' development and use in neuroscience is doubly guided. Pre-existing theory and concepts determine information's relevance, whereas tools' functioning in controlled situations determines information's reliability. Accordingly, experimenters' decision-making is situated both in the context of analysing, modelling or interpreting information and in the context of producing information. I study the case of the tungsten microelectrode developed by David Hubel during the 1950s. First, I show that pre-existing theory and concepts determine in advance what information would be relevant to obtain from the microelectrode. Second, I show that Hubel's tinkering follows the guidelines derived from the very structure of what we recognise as reliable experimentally produced information. Finally, I suggest that data-production processes allow experimenters to assess what to expect from an experimental system in terms of concept- and theory-generation and confirmation, thereby endorsing Bickle's tenet on the tertiary role of theory in neuroscience.



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Juan Manuel Garrido Wainer
Universidad Alberto Hurtado

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