Mechanisms and the problem of abstract models

European Journal for Philosophy of Science 13 (3):1-19 (2023)
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New mechanical philosophy posits that explanations in the life sciences involve the decomposition of a system into its entities and their respective activities and organization that are responsible for the explanandum phenomenon. This mechanistic account of explanation has proven problematic in its application to mathematical models, leading the mechanists to suggest different ways of aligning abstract models with the mechanist program. Initially, the discussion centered on whether the Hodgkin-Huxley model is explanatory. Network models provided another complication, as they apply to a wide number of materially diverse systems. In this article, we examine the various attempts to integrate abstract models within the mechanist program, also presenting a further challenge: the Heimburg-Jackson model, which was introduced as an alternative to the Hodgkin-Huxley model. We argue that although the notion of abstraction as the omission of irrelevant mechanistic details appears to give a mechanistic solution for accommodating abstract models, this notion does not suit models whose epistemic strategy is not decompositional. As a result, the mechanist has to choose whether to dilute the mechanistic approach nearly beyond recognition or to claim that many, if not most, abstract theoretical models do not deliver mechanistic explanations, or qualify as explanatory at all.



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Natalia Carrillo
University of Vienna

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