Mechanisms, Then and Now: From Metaphysics to Practice

In Brigitte Falkenburg & Gregor Schiemann (eds.), Mechanistic Explanations in Physics and Beyond. Cham: Springer Nature. pp. 11-31 (2019)
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For many old and new mechanists, Mechanism is both a metaphysical position and a thesis about scientific methodology. In this paper we discuss the relation between the metaphysics of mechanisms and the role of mechanical explanation in the practice of science, by presenting and comparing the key tenets of Old and New Mechanism. First, by focusing on the case of gravity, we show how the metaphysics of Old Mechanism constrained scientific explanation, and discuss Newton’s critique of Old Mechanism. Second, we examine the current mechanistic metaphysics, arguing that it is not warranted by the use of the concept of mechanism in scientific practice, and motivate a thin conception of mechanism (the truly minimal view), according to which mechanisms are causal pathways for a certain effect or phenomenon. Finally, we draw analogies between Newton’s critique of Old Mechanism and our thesis that the metaphysical commitments of New Mechanism are not necessary in order to illuminate scientific practice.
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