"On the Explanatory Relevance of Neuroeconomics"

January 31, 2017 -
12:00pm to 1:00pm

Abstract: The field of neuroeconomics emerged about ten years ago (see Glimcher & Fehr, 2014). Neuroeconomics is commonly viewed as a study of decision making which combines the concepts, methods, and tools from three main disciplines: neuroscience, psychology, and economics. Since its very beginning, neuroeconomics has given rise to intense methodological discussions involving economists (e.g., Gul & Pesendorfer 2005/2008, Harrison 2008, Bernheim 2009), neuroeconomists (e.g., Camerer, 2007, 2008, 2013; Krabjich & Dean, 2015) and also philosophers of science and/or economics (e.g., Hausman 2008, Economics and Philosophy 2008, Journal of Economic Methodology 2010, Clarke 2014). Several aspects of neuroeconomics have been tackled in these discussions. The main issue at stake is to determine the potential and relevance of neuroscience for economics. ‘Relevance” can mean several things. One may wonder whether neuroscience can help to predict economic phenomena (predictive relevance), to measure economics’ constructs, to explain economic phenomena (explanatory relevance) or to confirm and disconfirm economic hypotheses and models (confirmational relevance). This paper deals specifically with the issue of explanatory relevance. Upholders of neuroeconomics (the ‘neuro-enthusiasts’, for short) repeatedly argue that neuroeconomics has an explicit explanatory ambition and may improve the existing explanations of economic phenomena (i.e., is explanatory relevant). The inference from explanatory ambition to explanatory relevance is typically justified by the fact that neuroeconomics investigates the (neural) causes of choices and by the widespread view of economics as the study of choices (under scarcity) – see, e.g. Camerer (2013). This type of argument, and the explanatory relevance thesis more generally, have been criticized by philosophers of sciences and/or economics (Kuorikoski & Ylikoski 2010; Fumagalli 2014, sec.4). The debate is difficult to settle, for two reasons at least. Firstly, there is hardly a consensus, in general philosophy of science, as to what are explanatory progress and depth, and how explanatory progress and depth are related to the level at which explanation takes place (see Weslake 201). Secondly, the role and functioning of explanations in standard (micro-)economics are not as clear as it is often supposed. Our approach will consist in having a careful look at each of these two issues, in the first two parts of the talk, before dealing with the explanatory relevance thesis in the third one.

Location and Address

817R Cathedral of Learning