How and when are topological explanations complete mechanistic explanations? The case of multilayer network models

Synthese 202 (1):1-21 (2023)
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The relationship between topological explanation and mechanistic explanation is unclear. Most philosophers agree that at least some topological explanations are mechanistic explanations. The crucial question is how to make sense of this claim. Zednik (Philos Psychol 32(1):23–51, 2019) argues that topological explanations are mechanistic if they (i) describe mechanism sketches that (ii) pick out organizational properties of mechanisms. While we agree with Zednik’s conclusion, we critically discuss Zednik’s account and show that it fails as a general account of how and when topological explanations are mechanistic. First, if topological explanations were just mechanism sketches, this implies that they could be enriched by replacing topological terms with mechanistic detail. This, however, conflicts how topological explanations are used in scientific practice. Second, Zednik’s account fails to show how topological properties can be organizational properties of mechanisms that have a place in mechanistic explanation. The core issue is that Zednik’s account ignores that topological properties often are _global_ properties while mechanistic explanantia refer to _local_ properties. We demonstrate how these problems can be solved by a recent account of mechanistic completeness (Craver and Kaplan in Br J Philos Sci 71(1):287–319, 2020; Kohár and Krickel in Calzavarini and Viola (eds) Neural mechanisms—new challenges in the philosophy of neuroscience, Springer, New York, 2021) and use a multilayer network model of Alzheimer’s Disease to illustrate this.

Author Profiles

Beate Krickel
Technische Universität Berlin
Leon De Bruin
VU University Amsterdam


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