Active biological mechanisms: transforming energy into motion in molecular motors

Synthese 199 (5-6):12705-12729 (2021)
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Unless one embraces activities as foundational, understanding activities in mechanisms requires an account of the means by which entities in biological mechanisms engage in their activities—an account that does not merely explain activities in terms of more basic entities and activities. Recent biological research on molecular motors exemplifies such an account, one that explains activities in terms of free energy and constraints. After describing the characteristic “stepping” activities of these molecules and mapping the stages of those steps onto the stages of the motors’ hydrolytic cycles, researchers pieced together from images of the molecules in different hydrolyzation states accounts of how the chemical energy in ATP is transformed in the constrained environments of the motors into the characteristic activities of the motors. We argue that New Mechanism’s standard set of analytic categories—entities, activities, and organization—should be expanded to include constraints and energetics. Not only is such an expansion required descriptively to capture research on molecular motors but, more importantly from a philosophical point of view, it enables a non-regressive account of activities in mechanisms. In other words, this expansion enables a philosophical account of mechanistic explanation that avoids a regress of entities and activities “all the way down.” Rather, mechanistic explanation bottoms out in constraints and energetics.

Author Profiles

Andrew Bollhagen
University of California, San Diego
William Bechtel
University of California, San Diego


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