PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Constraints, Causal Powers, and Mechanistic Causation

Mechanistic explanations invoke causal notions: Machamer, Darden, and Craver (2000) appeal to “activities” whereas Bechtel and Abrahamsen (2005) refer to “operations.” How should these causal notions be understood metaphysically? Law-based accounts such as Glennan’s (2002), I contend, are insufficient; instead, a suitable notion of causal powers is needed to account for the intrinsic activeness of mechanisms. I characterize this as a shift from a Humean picture of mechanistic causation to an Aristotelian one.
I address two perceived problems with the metaphysics of causal powers: 1) that on the standard way of understanding powers, they are ultimately just dispositional properties; causation in terms of causal powers reduces to counterfactual, interventionist, or Humean causation, so appealing to powers doesn’t really get us any more mileage than directly appealing to these other notions (the inefficacy objection); and 2) non-standard accounts that instead grant causal powers a distinct kind of causal “oomph” of their own must posit entities that are mysterious or that would otherwise not fit into a naturalistic or scientifically respectable framework (the mysteriousness objection). I address the first worry by characterizing powers not as merely dispositional but instead as real potentialities that are intrinsic to the objects that have them.
To address the second worry, I flesh out causal powers in terms of the notion of constraint that has played an important conceptual workhorse role in several scientific fields, including classical mechanics and systems biology. More specifically, my central proposal is to understand powers in terms of external time-dependent constraints and to understand intrinsic natures in terms of internal time-dependent constraints. Rather than conceiving constraints as a derivative notion grounded in more fundamental dynamical concepts such as laws, forces, or powers, I suggest that we instead interpret constraints as metaphysically basic, just as is implicitly done in analytical mechanics. Powers are then conceived as metaphysically grounded by constraints. In this way, constraints provide a naturalistic, non-mysterious way to interpret Weissman’s (1965) concept of a real potentiality.
The distinction between internal and external constraints can ground a distinction between active and passive causal powers. In turn, I account for mechanistic activities and operations in terms of active and passive causal powers that are ultimately grounded in constraints. The causal powers and intrinsic natures of mechanistic components that underwrite their activities and operations are not, then, mysterious ontological incantations: they ultimately represent different types of mutually dependent constraining conditions that are inherent to a system.

Bechtel, William, and Adele Abrahamsen. 2005. “Explanation: A Mechanist Alternative.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 36:421–41.
Glennan, Stuart. 2002. Rethinking Mechanistic Explanation. Philosophy of Science 69:S342–53.
Machamer, Peter, Lindley Darden, and Carl F. Craver. 2000. “Thinking about Mechanisms.” Philosophy of Science 67 (1): 1–25.
Weissman, David. 1965. Dispositional Properties. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Author Information:

Jason Winning    
University of California, San Diego


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