Mechanist idealisation in systems biology

Synthese 199 (1-2):1555-1575 (2020)
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This paper adds to the philosophical literature on mechanistic explanation by elaborating two related explanatory functions of idealisation in mechanistic models. The first function involves explaining the presence of structural/organizational features of mechanisms by reference to their role as difference-makers for performance requirements. The second involves tracking counterfactual dependency relations between features of mechanisms and features of mechanistic explanandum phenomena. To make these functions salient, we relate our discussion to an exemplar from systems biological research on the mechanism for countering heat shock—the heat shock response system—in Escherichia coli bacteria. This research also reinforces a more general lesson: ontic constraint accounts in the literature on mechanistic explanation provide insufficiently informative normative appraisals of mechanistic models. We close by outlining an alternative view on the explanatory norms governing mechanistic representation.

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Cory Wright
California State University, Long Beach


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