Reducing psychology while maintaining its autonomy via mechanistic explanations

In M. Schouten & H. L. De Joong (eds.), The Matter of the Mind: Philosophical Essays on Psychology, Neuroscience and Reduction. Blackwell (2007)
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Arguments for the autonomy of psychology or other higher-level sciences have often taken the form of denying the possibility of reduction. The form of reduction most proponents and critics of the autonomy of psychology have in mind is theory reduction. Mechanistic explanations provide a different perspective. Mechanistic explanations are reductionist insofar as they appeal to lower-level entities—the component parts of a mechanism and their operations— to explain a phenomenon. However, unlike theory reductions, mechanistic explanations also recognize the fundamental role of organization in enabling mechanisms to engage their environments as units (as well as the role of yet higher-level structures in constraining such engagement). Especially when organization is non-linear, it can enable mechanisms to generate phenomena that are quite surprising given the operations of the components taken in isolation. Such organization must be discovered—it cannot simply be derived from knowledge of lower-level parts and their operations. Moreover, the organized environments in which mechanisms operate must also be discovered. It is typically the higher-level disciplines that have the tools for discovering the organization within and between mechanisms. Although these inquiries are constrained by the knowledge of the parts and operations constituting the mechanism, they make their own autonomous contribution to understanding how a mechanism actually behaves. Thus, mechanistic explanations provide a strong sense of autonomy for higher levels of organization and the inquiries addressing them even while recognizing the distinctive contributions of reductionistic research investigating the operations of the lower level components.



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William Bechtel
University of California, San Diego

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