Constraints on Localization and Decomposition as Explanatory Strategies in the Biological Sciences

Abstract

Several articles have recently appeared arguing that there really are no viable alternatives to mechanistic explanation in the biological sciences. This claim is meant to hold both in principle and in practice. The basic claim is that any explanation of a particular feature of a biological system, including dynamical explanations, must ultimately be grounded in mechanistic explanation. There are several variations on this theme, some stronger and some weaker. In order to avoid equivocation and miscommunication, in section 1 we will argue that mechanistic explanation is defined by localization and decomposition. In section 2 we will argue that systems neuroscience contains explanations that violate both localization and decomposition on any non-trivial construal of these concepts. Therefore, in section 3 we conclude the mechanistic model of explanation either needs to stretch to now include explanations wherein localization or decomposition fail, or acknowledge that there are counter-examples to mechanistic explanation in the biological sciences. We will also consider consequences and possible replies on the part of the mechanist in section 3.

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