An explanation can often be expressed as the answer to a question starting with “why”. For example: why do neurons generate action potentials? There are different kinds of explanations. More than 2000 years ago, Aristotle categorized them as “four causes”: efficient cause, material cause, formal cause and final cause. They correspond respectively to origin, substrate, structure and function.
Efficient cause: what triggers the phenomenon to be explained. Why do neurons generate action potentials? Because their membrane potential exceeds some threshold value. A large part of science focuses on efficient causes. The standard explanation of action potential generation in biology textbooks describes the phenomenon as a chain of efficient causes: the membrane potential exceeds some threshold value, which causes the opening of sodium channels; the opening of sodium channels causes an influx of positively charged ions; the influx causes an increase in the membrane potential.
Material cause: the physical substrate of the phenomenon. For example, a wooden box burns because it is made of wood. Why do neurons generate action potentials? Because they have sodium channels, a specific sort of proteins. This kind of explanation is also very common in neuroscience, for example: Why do we see? Because the visual cortex is activated.
Formal cause: the specific pattern that is responsible for the phenomenon. Why do neurons generate action potentials? Because there is a nonlinear voltage-dependent current that produces a positive feedback loop with a bifurcation. Note how this is different from material cause: the property could be recreated in a mathematical or computer model that has no protein, or possibly by proteins that are not sodium channels but have the required properties. It is also different from efficient causes: the chain of efficient causes described above only produces the phenomenon in combination with the material cause; for example if sodium channels did not have nonlinear properties, then there would not be any bifurcation and therefore no action potential. Efficient causes are only efficient in the specific context of the material causes – i.e.: the efficient cause describes what happens with sodium channels. The formal cause is what we call a model: an idealized description of the phenomenon that captures its structure.
Final cause: the function of the phenomenon. Why do neurons generate action potentials? So as to communicate quickly with distant neurons. Final causes have a special role in biology because of the theory of evolution, and theories of life. According to evolution theory, changes in structure that result in increased rates of survival and reproduction are preferentially conserved, and therefore species that we observe today must be somehow “adapted” to their environment. For example, there is some literature about how ionic channels involved in action potentials have coordinated properties that ensures maximum energetic efficiency. Theories of life emphasize the circularity of life: the organization of a living organism is such that structure maintains the conditions for its own existence, and so an important element of biological explanation is how mechanisms (the elements) contribute to the existence of the organism (the whole).
A large part of physics concerns formal cause (mathematical models of physical phenomena) and final cause (e.g. expression of physical phenomena as the minimization of energy). In the same way, theoretical approaches to neuroscience tend to focus on formal cause and final cause. Experimental approaches to neuroscience tend to focus on material cause and efficient cause. Many epistemological misunderstandings between experimental and theoretical neuroscientists seem to come from not realizing that these are distinct and complementary kinds of explanation. I quote from Killeen (2001), “The Four Causes of Behavior”: “Exclusive focus on final causes is derided as teleological, on material causes as reductionistic, on efficient causes as mechanistic, and on formal causes as “theorizing.””. A fully satisfying scientific explanation must come from the articulation between different types of explanation.
In biology, exclusive focus on material and efficient causes is particularly unsatisfying. A good illustration is the case of convergent evolution, in which phylogenetically distant species have evolved similar traits. For example, insects and mammals have a hearing organ. Note that the terms “hearing organ” refers to the final cause: the function of that organ is to allow the animal to hear sounds, and it is understood that evolution has favored the apparition of such an organ because hearing is useful for these animals. However, the ears of insects and mammals are physically very different, so the material cause of hearing is entirely different. It follows that the chain of efficient causes (the “triggers”) is also different. Yet it is known that the structure of these organs, i.e., the formal cause, is very similar. For example, at a formal level, there is a part of the ear that performs air-to-liquid impedance conversion, although with different physical substrates. The presence of this air-to-liquid impedance conversion stage in both species can be explained by the fact that it is necessary to transmit airborne sounds to biological substrates that are much denser (= final cause). Thus, the similarity between hearing organs across species can only be explained by the articulation between formal cause (a model of the organ) and final cause (the function).
In brief, biological understanding is incomplete if it does not include formal and final explanations, which are not primarily empirical. At the light of this discussion, computational neuroscience is the subfield of neuroscience whose aim is to relate structure (formal cause = model) and function (final cause). If such a link can be found independently of the material cause (which implicitly assumes ontological reductionism), then it should be possible to simulate the model and observe the function.