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Discovering Patterns: On the Norms of Mechanistic Inquiry

  • Lena KästnerEmail author
  • Philipp Haueis
Original Research


What kinds of norms constrain mechanistic discovery and explanation? In the mechanistic literature, the norms for good explanations are directly derived from answers to the metaphysical question of what explanations are. Prominent mechanistic accounts thus emphasize either ontic (Craver, in: Kaiser, Scholz, Plenge, Hüttemann (eds) Explanation in the special sciences: the case of biology and history, Springer, Dordrecht, pp 27–52, 2014) or epistemic norms (Bechtel in Mental mechanisms: philosophical perspectives on cognitive neuroscience, Routledge, London, 2008). Still, mechanistic philosophers on both sides agree that there is no sharp distinction between the processes of discovery and explanation (Bechtel and Richardson in Discovering complexity. Decomposition and localization as strategies in scientific research, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2010; Craver and Darden in In search of mechanisms: discoveries across the life sciences, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2013). Thus, it seems reasonable to expect that ontic and epistemic accounts of explanation will be accompanied by ontic and epistemic accounts of discovery, respectively. As we will show here, however, recent discovery accounts implicitly rely on both ontic and epistemic norms to characterize the discovery process. In this paper, we develop an account that makes explicit that, and how, ontic and epistemic norms work together throughout the discovery process. By describing mechanism discovery as a process of pattern recognition (Haugeland, in: Having thought. Essays in the metaphysics of mind, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 267–290, 1998) we demonstrate that scientists have to develop epistemic activities to distinguish a pattern from its background. Furthermore, they have to determine which epistemic activities successfully describe how the pattern is implemented by identifying the pattern’s components. Our approach reveals that ontic and epistemic norms are equally important in mechanism discovery.



We are indebted to Carl Craver, Uljana Feest, Joseph Rouse, and Beate Krickel for ample discussion on the subject and helpful feedback on earlier versions of this paper. We would also like to thank the participants of the Workshop “Patterns in Science” held at Berlin School of Mind and Brain in 2015, the SPSP conference 2016 at Rowan University, the GAP conference 2018 at University of Cologne, and discussants at the philosophy of science colloquium at Australian National University in 2019 as well as three anonymous reviewers.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophySaarland UniversitySaarbrückenGermany
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyBielefeld UniversityBielefeldGermany
  3. 3.Berlin School of Mind and BrainHumboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany

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