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Philosophical Foundations of Topological Explanations

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TOPEX (Philosophical Foundations of Topological Explanations)

Reporting period: 2016-06-01 to 2018-05-31

The aim of this project was to develop a comprehensive account of topological explanations, which may have applications in two areas of philosophy concerned with how the brain works, i.e. in philosophy of mind and in philosophy of neuroscience. To this effect, the project had four main research objectives (RO) each of which were achieved in four work packages of the project:
RO1: to analyse the explanatory power of topological models. I was analysing methods used to build topological models to see if they deliver: a) understanding, b) an account of how the model is explanatory rather than merely descriptive;
RO2: to systematically assess representational constraints of topological models given the relevant methods and techniques for obtaining data in special science, particularly in neuroscience;
RO3: to contextualize topological explanations with regard to the mainstream paradigms (the mechanistic and semantic/functionalist ones), particularly to show that topological explanations support counterfactual analysis;
RO4: to systematize varieties of topological explanation that are used in different areas in order to be able to point out prospects of their further development.
"In WP1, I outlined three papers that deal with three interrelated issues:
The first paper was on the relationship between the representation, explanation and counterfactual information in network models. The title of the paper is: ""Topological controllability of the brain: a case of non-causal interventionism"".
The second paper was about the representation and ontic commitments in network models. The title of the paper is: ""Mathematical Features and Ontic Commitments in Topological Explanation"".
The third paper in this work package was on the structure of topological explanation and its relation to scientific understanding. The title of the paper is: ""Explanation and Understanding in Highly Idealized Topological Models"". This paper is now accepted for publication in the journal Perspectives on Science (MIT Press).

In WP2 I was working on my paper on the ontic commitments in topological explanations where I argued that even though the topological explanations don't hinge on contingent empirical facts, but instead describe mathematical dependency relations in the network model, they should not be seen as being completely divorced from reality, and hence false. So, what kind of empirical facts they do have to take into account, in order to avoid being divorced from reality? I considered various ways in which ontic details and mathematics are indispensable in these explanations. I also put greater emphasis on the relation between the structure of explanation and understanding and focused more on the paper that treated that issue.

In WP3 I started working on the issues of understanding, the indispensability of mathematics in topological explanations, and explanatory asymmetries and I also started 2 seminars that proved to be of great importance to the lab and for myself. One interdisciplinary seminar in philosophy of neuroscience together with Prof Denis Forest of the IHPST (link: and the other on the understanding together with Prof Max Kistler, (link: then the director of the institute.

The work in previous work packages has led to the main issue about the prospects of future development of topological approaches in the sciences. The all-encompassing question in this regard was about the epistemic norms for understanding levels, hierarchies and explanatory directionality in topological approaches. To answer the question together with some of the pioneers of this approach in neuroscience Prof. Claus Hilgetag and Prof. Marc Tittgemeyer we organized a three day interdisciplinary workshop in Paris on the problem of descriptive levels, hierarchies and graph-theoretical asymmetries in small-world topologies that are used to describe the brain organization, and we have submitted a proposal for a special issue in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences."
The fellowship has already made an important impact on my career. I acquired knowledge and developed skills in the fields of general philosophy of science, philosophy of neuroscience, and some in philosophy of biology and philosophy of mathematics, which are critical for further advancement of my academic career. As a result of the project's visibility, immediately after the fellowship I got a one-year postdoc job at the University of Bordeaux-Montaigne, and I was invited to submit an ERC Starting Grant proposal by the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ghent in Belgium, and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam in Netherlands. I was also approached by Guillaume Marrelec and Alain Giron from the Laboratoire d’imagerie biomedicale (LIB)-CNRS/University of Sorbonne Paris 1, to start a project on the problem of interactions and dependencies in brain imaging. We are preparing a series of joint programmatic publications on this topic as well as a grant proposal. All this is a strong indication that my work and my profile as a researcher starts to be recognized both nationally in France as well as internationally. Furthermore, through my interdisciplinary seminar in philosophy of neuroscience I have established an initial collaboration platform between the host and several national and international neuroscience institutions that are highly regarded, i.e. 1) The Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle épinière – ICM (Brain & Spine Institute) in Paris (France), 2) GIPSA-lab, Grenoble (France) which is internationally recognized for the research in Automatic Control, Signal and Images processing, Speech and Cognition, 3) Research Group for Translational Neurocircuitry, Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research, Cologne (Germany), and the 4) Institute of Computational Neuroscience in Hamburg (Germany). Through workshops, seminars and special issues I have also connected the host with several top philosophy departments in the EU and overseas, particularly on the issues which were not previously covered by the research programs at the host institution (the topics include: explanatory asymmetries, non-causal explanations, scientific understanding), e.g. University of Nottingham (UK), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (USA), Simon Fraser University (Canada), University of Leeds (UK), Centre for Science Studies at Aarhus University (Denmark), University of Bergen (Norway), Duesseldorf Center for Logic and Philosophy of Science (Germany), VU University Amsterdam (Netherlands).
Through these activities the project has also raised the quality of research within ERA, and these collaborative efforts will be extremely beneficial for the wide scientific community because it opens a unique opportunity for the researchers from very diverse backgrounds in sciences to work together with philosophers on some of the most difficult foundational and methodological issues of network approaches and theories of explanation. This unique and tremendously important interdisciplinary collaboration demonstrates that direct interests and influences between sciences and philosophy can result in the foundational work of the highest level, which in itself will help to broaden the reach and effectiveness of the EU funding instruments.