Mechanisms and Causation – Workshop with Stuart Glennan

18 July 2013

DFG Research Group Causation | Laws | Dispositions | Explanation

Richard-Strauss-Str. 2 (Bauwensgebäude)
room 1.A13 (first floor, to the left)


10:30-11:30 Stuart Glennan (Butler University): Mechanistic Production and Difference Making

11:45-12:45 Jan Baedke (Ruhr University Bochum): Causes, Mechanisms and Explanatory Power in Epigenetics

Lunch break

14:30-15:30 Beate Krickel (Humboldt-University Berlin): The Metaphysics of Mechanisms and Phenomena

15:45-16:45 Markus Schrenk (University of Cologne): Mechanisms: Law Abiding After All

17:00-18:00 Daniel Plenge (Westfälische-Wilhelms-University Münster): Mechanism Talk and History Talk

19:00 Conference dinner


Stuart Glennan: Mechanistic Production and Difference Making

Ever since Hitchcock’s (1995) critique of Salmon (1984), it has been widely held that causal mechanical or process accounts of causation cannot explain intuitions that causes must make a difference. It appears both that events connected by such processes may not make a difference, and events that make a difference are not always connected by such processes. In this talk I will argue that these objections only hold if one adopts a reductive account of physical causation. The so-called new mechanicism in the philosophy of science provides the resources for an alternative account of causal production that avoids these objections.
Rather than defining processes and interactions in terms of some single sort of persistence or change (as in Dowe’s conserved-quantity account), an activities-based account of production suggests that different kinds of activities and interactions will produce different kinds of changes. In this talk I will sketch this new approach to production, and show how it allows that paradigm cases of causation by disconnection are in fact cases of mechanistic production.

Jan Baedke: Causes, Mechanisms and Explanatory Power in Epigenetics
The field of epigenetics is booming. This recent development has been accompanied by a philosophical debate on whether epigenetics could spur a paradigm shift in modern biology. This paper argues that although epigenetics (re)introduces interesting historical issues into modern biology, investigations of its explanatory practices has yet been completely neglected by philosophers of science interested in explanation. In order to close this gap, the paper develops a framework of contrastive explanation to evaluate the explanatory power of epigenetic explanation in contrast to prevailing mechanistic explanations in molecular biology and orthodox causal explanations in evolutionary biology.
These two issues will be addressed: Do molecular epigeneticists’ explanations with less mechanistic detail (i.e. higher-level explanations omitting genetic explanatory information) have more explanatory power than standard mechanistic molecular explanations? Do proximate/efficient cause explanations (answering how a character evolved) have more explanatory power in evolutionary biology than standard ultimate/final cause explanations (answering what a character evolved for)? I will argue that answering these questions is crucial for establishing an explanatory framework of a new ‘Extended Synthesis’ which gives precise guidance by means of which criteria (why) and in which explanatory context (when) epigenetic explanations are legitimately chosen over prevailing molecular and evolutionary explanations.

Beate Krickel: The Metaphysics of Mechanisms and Phenomena
In my talk I will discuss the question how mechanisms are related to the phenomena they explain. I will discuss three suggestions: Craver’s account of constitutive relevance, Gillett’s approach to constitution, and the idea that mechanisms and phenomena are identical. I will argue that all three approaches are inadequate. I will, then, develop a new account of the ontological relation between mechanisms and phenomena. This new account, roughly, states that mechanisms explain phenomena because they are causally related. I will provide arguments for this idea and defend it against several objections.

Markus Schrenk: Mechanisms – Law Abiding After All
An ontological fundament will be given for mechanistic explanations in the special sciences, particularly the life sciences. In doing so, the advantageous closeness of mechanistic explanations to the practice and epistemology of these sciences will remain in place but mechanisms will be freed from unnecessary metaphysical burdens (cf. the primitivist account of causation outlined in Machamer, Darden & Craver (2000)). The embedding of mechanisms into a properties, structures and laws of nature metaphysics that is presented here can be seen as the spelling out of the hints some “mechanistas” give regarding the ontology of mechanisms (cf. Glennan 1996: 55; 2010: 378). The paper is structured in the following way. I give, in two steps, a precise and formal definition of what I call “grounded laws”. I then demonstrate that grounded laws mirror exactly all positive features of mechanisms while they have the above mentioned ontological advantages. In fact, mechanisms talk is one-one translatable into grounded laws talk. To illustrate my definitions, a sample “grounded law” from biochemistry about haemoglobin is discussed.

Daniel Plenge: Mechanism Talk and History Talk