Original paper in Philosophy of Science

European Journal for Philosophy of Science

, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 233-248

First online:

Understanding endogenously active mechanisms: A scientific and philosophical challenge

  • William BechtelAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, Center for Chronobiology, and Science Studies Program, University of California Email author 

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Although noting the importance of organization in mechanisms, the new mechanistic philosophers of science have followed most biologists in focusing primarily on only the simplest mode of organization in which operations are envisaged as occurring sequentially. Increasingly, though, biologists are recognizing that the mechanisms they confront are non-sequential and the operations nonlinear. To understand how such mechanisms function through time, they are turning to computational models and tools of dynamical systems theory. Recent research on circadian rhythms addressing both intracellular mechanisms and the intercellular networks in which these mechanisms are synchronized illuminates this point. This and other recent research in biology shows that the new mechanistic philosophers of science must expand their account of mechanistic explanation to incorporate computational modeling, yielding dynamical mechanistic explanations. Developing such explanations, however, is a challenge for both the scientists and the philosophers as there are serious tensions between mechanistic and dynamical approaches to science, and there are important opportunities for philosophers of science to contribute to surmounting these tensions.


New mechanistic philosophy of science Dynamical mechanistic explanation Computational modeling Circadian rhythms Dynamical systems theory Non-sequential organization