Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 26, Issue 3, pp 365–383 | Cite as

Causation at different levels: tracking the commitments of mechanistic explanations

  • Peter FazekasEmail author
  • Gergely Kertész


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 



Thanks to George Kampis, Jonas Christensen, Jesper Kallestrup, Kim Sterelny and an anonymous referee for their valuable comments. One of the authors (PF) is grateful to the Eötvös Scholarship from the Hungarian State and the University of Edinburgh College of Humanities and Social Sciences Scholarship for their generous support.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language SciencesThe University of EdinburghEdinburghScotland, UK
  2. 2.Institute for Philosophical Research, Hungarian Academy of SciencesBudapestHungary
  3. 3.Department of Philosophy and History of ScienceBudapest University of Technology and EconomicsBudapestHungary

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