Mechanistic Explanation in Psychology

In Hank Stam & Huib Looren De Jong (eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Theoretical Psychology. (Eds.) Hank Stam and Huib Looren de Jong. Sage (forthcoming)
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Philosophers of psychology debate, among other things, which psychological models, if any, are (or provide) mechanistic explanations. This should seem a little strange given that there is rough consensus on the following two claims: 1) a mechanism is an organized collection of entities and activities that produces, underlies, or maintains a phenomenon, and 2) a mechanistic explanation describes, represents, or provides information about the mechanism producing, underlying, or maintaining the phenomenon to be explained (i.e. the explanandum phenomenon) (Bechtel and Abrahamsen 2005; Craver 2007). If there is a rough consensus on what mechanisms are and that mechanistic explanations describe, represent, or provide information about them, then how is there no consensus on which psychological models are (or provide) mechanistic explanations? Surely the psychological models that are mechanistic explanations are the models that describe, represent, or provide information about mechanisms. That is true, of course; the trouble arises when determining what exactly that involves. Philosophical disagreement over which psychological models are mechanistic explanations is often disagreement about what it means to describe, represent, or provide information about a mechanism, among other things (Hochstein 2016; Levy 2013). In addition, one's position in this debate depends on a host of other seemingly arcane metaphysical issues, such as the nature of mechanisms, computational and functional properties (Piccinini 2016), and realization (Piccinini and Maley 2014), as well as the relation between models, methodologies, and explanations (Craver 2014; Levy 2013; Zednik 2015). Although I inevitably advocate a position, my primary aim in this chapter is to spell out all these relationships and canvas the positions that have been taken (or could be taken) with respect to mechanistic explanation in psychology, using dynamical systems models and cognitive models (or functional analyses) as examples.

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Mark Povich
University of Rochester


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