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Top Cogn Sci. 2015 Apr;7(2):299-311. doi: 10.1111/tops.12134. Epub 2015 Mar 13.

Marr and reductionism.

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Department of Philosophy and Religion, Mississippi State University; University of Mississippi Medical Center.


David Marr's three-level method for completely understanding a cognitive system and the importance he attaches to the computational level are so familiar as to scarcely need repeating. Fewer seem to recognize that Marr defends his famous method by criticizing the "reductionistic approach." This sets up a more interesting relationship between Marr and reductionism than is usually acknowledged. I argue that Marr was correct in his criticism of the reductionists of his time-they were only describing (cellular activity), not explaining (cognitive functions). But a careful metascientific account of reductionistic neuroscience over the past two decades reveals that Marr's criticisms no longer have force. Contemporary neuroscience now explains cognition directly, although in a fashion-causal-mechanistically-quite different than Marr recommended. So while Marr was correct to reject the reductionism of his day and offer an alternative method for genuinely explaining cognition, contemporary cognitive scientists now owe us a new defense of Marr's famous method and the advantages of its explanations over the type now pursued successfully in current reductionist neuroscience. There are familiar reasons for thinking that this debt will not be paid easily.


Causal-mechanistic explanation; Convergent 3 analysis; Electrophysiology; Molecular and cellular cognition; Non-intervention experiments; Reductionistic approach

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