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Egenis · Events

Egenis seminar with Dan Nicholson

Seminar   27.01.2009






Dan Nicholson, Egenis PhD Student

Organised by



University of Exeter,Egenis, Byrne House,St Germans Road,Exeter, EX4 4PJ

Room no: GF7, Byrne House

Event details

Time: 3:30 - 5:00 PM

Thinking About Mechanisms, Again

Machamer, Darden, and Craver’s Thinking About Mechanisms (2000) is currently the most cited article in Philosophy of Science. This article has led, in conjunction with the work of Glennan (1996, 2002) and a few others, to the establishment of a new philosophical research programme, which I call mechanismic philosophy, that has become particularly prominent in the philosophy of biology. Mechanismic philosophy attempts to make sense of traditional problems in the philosophy of science (issues such as explanation, causation, modelling, discovery, reduction, etc.) by appealing to the concept of mechanism and the role it plays in scientific research. This new philosophical movement has been generally received with enthusiasm, as it is taken to constitute an effective antidote to the classical and outmoded deductive-nomological conception of scientific explanation inherited from logical empiricism.Mechanismic philosophers claim that thinking about mechanisms (a) offers a better way to think about one’s metaphysical commitments, (b) provides a new and illuminating prism through which to view the history of science, and (c) helps clarify the nature of scientific explanation. In this paper, I argue that although thinking about mechanisms may indeed enable us to improve our understanding of these matters, the way mechanismic philosophers have thought about mechanisms so far has not led to the fulfilment of any of these objectives. The reason, I contend, is that mechanismic philosophy as a whole rests upon a conceptual confusion regarding the meaning of ‘mechanism’. In my paper, I disentangle the semantic conflation inherent in the concept of mechanism by distinguishing three distinct meanings of the term, all of which are found in the contemporary philosophical literature. I then resort to the history of biology to provide a plausible explanation for the emergence of the different meanings, and the reasons for why they continue to be conflated in current discussions. Following this, I proceed to flesh out what I take to be the main problems of the mechanismic position, many of which derive from mechanismic philosophy’s explicit intention to closely align itself with actual scientific practice, and which I argue render it vulnerable to the charge of vacuity. Finally, I distinguish between misguided and misleading strains of mechanismic philosophy, and after anticipating some potential objections to my argument I conclude by offering some suggestions on how we may constructively advance the philosophical discussion of mechanisms.

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