Mechanistic explanation at the limit

Synthese 183 (3):389-408 (2011)
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Resurgent interest in both mechanistic and counterfactual theories of explanation has led to a fair amount of discussion regarding the relative merits of these two approaches. James Woodward is currently the pre-eminent counterfactual theorist, and he criticizes the mechanists on the following grounds: Unless mechanists about explanation invoke counterfactuals, they cannot make sense of claims about causal interactions between mechanism parts or of causal explanations put forward absent knowledge of productive mechanisms. He claims that these shortfalls can be offset if mechanists will just borrow key tenets of his counterfactual theory of causal claims. What mechanists must bear in mind, however, is that by pursuing this course they risk both the assimilation of the mechanistic theories of explanation into Woodward’s own favored counterfactual theory, and they risk the marginalization of mechanistic explanations to a proper subset of all explanations. An outcome more favorable to mechanists might be had by pursuing an actualist-mechanist theory of the contents of causal claims. While it may not seem obvious at first blush that such an approach is workable, even in principle, recent empirical research into causal perception, causal belief, and mechanical reasoning provides some grounds for optimism.



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Jon Waskan
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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