Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-p2v8j Total loading time: 0.001 Render date: 2024-05-26T09:26:56.912Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Potential Controversies: Causation and the Hodgkin and Huxley Equations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2022


The import of Hodgkin and Huxley’s classic model of the action potential has been hotly debated in recent years, with particular controversy surrounding claims by prominent proponents of mechanistic explanation. For these authors, the Hodgkin-Huxley model is an excellent predictive tool but ultimately lacks causal/explanatory import. What is more, they claim that this is how Hodgkin and Huxley themselves saw the model. I argue that these claims rest on a problematic reading of the work. Hodgkin and Huxley’s model is both causal and, in an important sense, explanatory.

Cognitive Sciences
Copyright © The Philosophy of Science Association

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


The author would like to acknowledge Mazviita Chirimuuta, Joseph McCaffrey, Edouard Machery, and those to whom this paper was presented in spoken form for their encouragement and feedback.


Aldrich, Richard. 2001. “Fifty Years of Inactivation.” Nature 411 (6838): 643–64.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Armstrong, Clay, Bezanilla, Francisco, and Rojas, Eduardo. 1973. “Destruction of Sodium Conductance Inactivation in Squid Axons Perfused with Pronase.” Journal of General Physiology 62 (4): 375–91.Google ScholarPubMed
Armstrong, Clay, and Hille, Bertil. 1998. “Voltage-Gated Ion Channels and Electrical Excitability.” Neuron 20 (3): 371–80.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bezanilla, Francisco. 2008. “Ion Channels: From Conductance to Structure.” Neuron 60 (3): 456–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bogen, Jim. 2008. “The Hodgkin-Huxley Equations and the Concrete Model: Comments on Craver, Schaffner, and Weber.” Philosophy of Science 75 (5): 1034–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Carbonell-Pascual, Beatriz, Godoy, Eduardo, Ferrer, Ana, Romero, Lucia, and Ferrero, Jose M. 2016. “Comparison between Hodgkin-Huxley and Markov Formulations of Cardiac Ion Channels.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 399:92102.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Craver, Carl. 2007. Explaining the Brain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Craver, Carl 2008. “Physical Law and Mechanistic Explanation in the Hodgkin and Huxley Model of the Action Potential.” Philosophy of Science 75 (5): 1022–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Craver, Carl 2014. “The Ontic Account of Scientific Explanation.” In Explanation in the Special Sciences, ed. Kaiser, Marie I., Scholz, Oliver R., Plenge, Daniel, and Hüttemann, Andreas, 2752. Synthese Library 367. Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hodgkin, Allan L., and Huxley, Andrew F. 1952a. “The Components of Membrane Conductance in the Giant Axon of Loligo.” Journal of Physiology 116 (4): 473–99.Google Scholar
Hodgkin, Allan L., and Huxley, Andrew F. 1952b. “Currents Carried by Sodium and Potassium Ions through the Membrane of the Giant Axon of Loligo.” Journal of Physiology 116 (4): 449–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hodgkin, Allan L., and Huxley, Andrew F. 1952c. “A Quantitative Description of Membrane Current and Its Application to Conduction and Excitation in Nerve.” Journal of Physiology 117 (4): 500544.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Huxley, Andrew F. 1972. “Excitation and Conduction in Nerve: Quantitative Analysis.” In Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine, 1963–1970, 5269. New York: Elsevier.Google Scholar
Huxley, Andrew F. 2002. “From Overshoot to Voltage Clamp.” Trends in Neurosciences 25 (11): 553–58.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Iwasaki, Yumi, and Simon, Herbert A. 1994. “Causality and Model Abstraction.” Artificial Intelligence 67 (1): 143–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Levy, Arnon. 2014. “What Was Hodgkin and Huxley’s Achievement?British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 65:469–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pearl, Judea. 2000. Causality: Models, Reasoning, and Inference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Voortman, Mark, Dash, Denver, and Druzdzel, Marek J. 2012. “Learning Why Things Change: The Difference-Based Causality Learner.” Unpublished manuscript,, Cornell University. arXiv:1203.3525.Google Scholar
Weber, Marcel. 2008. “Causes without Mechanisms: Experimental Regularities, Physical Laws, and Neuroscientific Explanation.” Philosophy of Science 75 (5): 9951007.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Woodward, James. 2003. Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar