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Causation at different levels: tracking the commitments of mechanistic explanations

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. Figure 1 is based on Fig. 2 in (Craver 2001, p. 66) and Fig. 1.1 in (Craver 2007, p. 7).

  2. Note that not all proponents of the mechanistic approach can easily be positioned along this continuum. Carl Craver, for example, by arguing for the so-called ‘mosaic unity’ of the sciences, implies that sciences are neither reduced to one another nor are they autonomous from each other, but rather equally contribute to the development of multilevel mechanisms (Craver 2007).

  3. Especially its reflexive variety where a whole exerts causal influence on its parts.

  4. One who is subscribed to Shoemaker’s analysis (2003, 2007) might want to say that Ci and Cj represent backward looking whereas Ck represents forward looking causal powers of X3.

  5. The fact that mechanistic explanations do use identity statements can nicely be pinpointed in some of the texts published by the proponents of the account. For the sake of the example consider the following two quotes.

    In this sketch of events involved in remembering a lecture, I twice stepped down levels by appealing to an identity between the effect on a system and a change in constituents of the system. At the lower level the causal story was an ordinary causal one. Then I stepped up a level by appealing to an identity between the new operations within the mechanism and the way it behaved as a whole. At the level of the whole the story was again an ordinary causal one (Bechtel 2008, pp. 154–155, emphases added).

    And insofar as that non-functioning constitutes the general’s death, we explain her death. Notice that when we reach the state of the mechanism that constitutes the state of death, we do not say, with Betty Crocker, that it causes death. It just is death (Craver & Bechtel 2007, p. 557, emphasis added).

  6. Note that given Bechtel’s commitment against multiple realisability, identity of causal roles—since the mechanistic framework is subscribed to the functional model of reduction (cf. Craver 2001; Bechtel 2008)—implies the identity of the entities at different levels filling the same causal roles.

  7. A somewhat similar point has been suggested by Megan Delehanty (2005) under the term of ‘mechanism extension’.

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Acknowledgments

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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Fazekas, P., Kertész, G. Causation at different levels: tracking the commitments of mechanistic explanations. Biol Philos 26, 365–383 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-011-9247-5

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Keywords

  • Mechanistic explanation
  • Reduction
  • Autonomy
  • Downward causation