A Field Guide to Mechanisms: Part II

Philosophy Compass 9 (4):284-293 (2014)
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In this field guide, I distinguish five separate senses with which the term ‘mechanism’ is used in contemporary philosophy of science. Many of these senses have overlapping areas of application but involve distinct philosophical claims and characterize the target mechanisms in relevantly different ways. This field guide will clarify the key features of each sense and introduce some main debates, distinguishing those that transpire within a given sense from those that are best understood as concerning two distinct senses. The ‘new mechanisms’ sense is the primary sense from which other senses will be distinguished. In part II of this field guide, I consider three further senses of the term that are ontologically ‘flat’ or at least not explicitly hierarchical in character: equations in structural equation models of causation, causal-physical processes, and information-theoretic constraints on states available to systems. After characterizing each sense, I clarify its ontological commitments, its methodological implications, how it figures in explanations, its implications for reduction, and the key manners in which it differs from other senses of mechanism. I conclude that there is no substantive core meaning shared by all senses, and that debates in contemporary philosophy of science can benefit from clarification regarding precisely which sense of mechanism is at stake
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