Mechanisms, resources, and background conditions

Abstract

Distinguishing mechanistic components from mere causally relevant background conditions remains a difficulty for mechanistic accounts of explanation. By distinguishing resources from mechanical parts, I argue that we can more effectively draw this boundary. Further, the distinction makes obvious that there are distinctive resource explanations which are not captured by a traditional part-based mechanistic account. While this suggests a straightforward extension of the mechanistic model, I argue that incorporating resources and resource explanations requires moving beyond the purely local account of levels that some mechanists advocate.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting the example.

  2. 2.

    Indeed, for disciplines without a clear agent-patient distinction, the two carvings might not get much purchase anywhere. Simple physical explanations are an obvious example: in the world of atoms and void, things simply happen, without actor or acted upon. This may be why the mechanistic style of explanation seems less useful in the case of basic physics. This is not something special about physics per se though: more complex physical explanations might reproduce the agent-patient structure. Consider explanations of supernovas. The star uses its fuel, and once it is forced to rely on inferior resources for stellar combustion it goes nova. Having reconstructed the agent-patient structure, it is also natural to talk about the mechanisms of stellar evolution. Conversely, there are systems that resist an easy agent-patient dichotomy because they appear to have features of both at once. The most obvious of these are what Bechtel calls active mechanisms (2008, Ch8). These include the mechanisms involved in autocatalytic loops, homeostatic processes, and other feedback cycles. Key to mechanisms with feedback is the possibility of a mechanism altering its own operation—that is, acting at the same time as agent and patient. Active mechanisms are, as Bechtel argues, key to understanding many living processes; they’re also arguably more important for understanding many neural processes (Bechtel 2008).

  3. 3.

    See also Craver and Darden (2013, 88) and Bechtel and Richardson (2010, xix). A local sense of level arguably predates the mechanists. Marr’s (1982) famous tripartite division of levels is drawn relative to a particular explanatory task; the lower levels are investigated in the context of sorting out the details of the computational level. Similarly, homuncular functionalism is concerned with functional decomposition relative to a starting capacity (Lycan 1990).

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Peter Clutton, Liz Irvine, Annelli Janssen, Meg Ivory, Chris Lean, Marco Viola, Elizabeth Schier, and participants at the 2014 Cognitive Science Kioloa workshop for helpful comments on earlier drafts. Thanks to Yellow Car, and indirectly to Karen Bennett, for inspiring many of the automotive examples. This research was supported by Australian Research Council Grant FT140100422.

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Correspondence to Colin Klein.

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Klein, C. Mechanisms, resources, and background conditions. Biol Philos 33, 36 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-018-9646-y

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Keywords

  • Mechanism
  • Resources
  • Background conditions
  • Explanation
  • Levels