, Volume 72, Issue 1, pp 135-149,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 22 Oct 2009

Activity-Based Accounts of Mechanism and the Threat of Polygenic Effects

Abstract

Accounts of ontic explanation have often been devised so as to provide an understanding of mechanism and of causation. Ontic accounts differ quite radically in their ontologies, and one of the latest additions to this tradition proposed by Peter Machamer, Lindley Darden and Carl Craver reintroduces the concept of activity. In this paper I ask whether this influential and activity-based account of mechanisms is viable as an ontic account. I focus on polygenic scenarios—scenarios in which the causal truths depend on more than one cause. The importance of polygenic causation was noticed early on by Mill (1893). It has since been shown to be a problem for both causal-law approaches to causation (Cartwright 1983) and accounts of causation cast in terms of capacities (Dupré 1993; Glennan 1997, pp. 605–626). However, whereas mechanistic accounts seem to be attractive precisely because they promise to handle complicated causal scenarios, polygenic causation needs to be examined more thoroughly in the emerging literature on activity-based mechanisms. The activity-based account proposed in Machamer et al. (2000, pp. 1–25) is problematic as an ontic account, I will argue. It seems necessary to ask, of any ontic account, how well it performs in causal situations where—at the explanandum level of mechanism—no activity occurs. In addition, it should be asked how well the activity-based account performs in situations where there are too few activities around to match the polygenic causal origin of the explanandum. The first situation presents an explanandum-problem and the second situation presents an explanans-problem—I will argue—both of which threaten activity-based frameworks.