Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 26, Issue 3, pp 365-383

First online:

Causation at different levels: tracking the commitments of mechanistic explanations

  • Peter FazekasAffiliated withSchool of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, The University of EdinburghInstitute for Philosophical Research, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Email author 
  • , Gergely KertészAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy and History of Science, Budapest University of Technology and Economics

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This paper tracks the commitments of mechanistic explanations focusing on the relation between activities at different levels. It is pointed out that the mechanistic approach is inherently committed to identifying causal connections at higher levels with causal connections at lower levels. For the mechanistic approach to succeed a mechanism as a whole must do the very same thing what its parts organised in a particular way do. The mechanistic approach must also utilise bridge principles connecting different causal terms of different theoretical vocabularies in order to make the identities of causal connections transparent. These general commitments get confronted with two claims made by certain proponents of the mechanistic approach: William Bechtel often argues that within the mechanistic framework it is possible to balance between reducing higher levels and maintaining their autonomy at the same time, whereas, in a recent paper, Craver and Bechtel argue that the mechanistic approach is able to make downward causation intelligible. The paper concludes that the mechanistic approach imbued with identity statements is no better candidate for anchoring higher levels to lower ones while maintaining their autonomy at the same time than standard reductive accounts are, and that what mechanistic explanations are able to do at best is showing that downward causation does not exist.


Mechanistic explanation Reduction Autonomy Downward causation