Artifacts and levels of abstraction

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The purpose of this article is to show how the comparison or analogy with artifacts (i.e., systems engineered by humans) is foundational for the idea that complex neuro-cognitive systems are amenable to explanation at distinct levels, which is a central simplifying strategy for modeling the brain. The most salient source of analogy is of course the digital computer, but I will discuss how some more general comparisons with the processes of design and engineering also play a significant role. I will show how the analogies, and the subsequent notion of a distinct computational level, have engendered common ideas about how safely to abstract away from the complexity of concrete neural systems, yielding explanations of how neural processes give rise to cognitive functions. I also raise worries about the limitations of these explanations, due to neglected differences between the human-made devices and biological organs.
Original languageEnglish
Journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Publication statusPublished - 9 Aug 2022


  • philosophy of neuroscience
  • levels of abstraction
  • levels of explanation
  • analogy
  • philosophy of cognitive science


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