Mechanism, autonomy and biological explanation

Biology and Philosophy 36 (6):1-27 (2021)
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Abstract

The new mechanists and the autonomy approach both aim to account for how biological phenomena are explained. One identifies appeals to how components of a mechanism are organized so that their activities produce a phenomenon. The other directs attention towards the whole organism and focuses on how it achieves self-maintenance. This paper discusses challenges each confronts and how each could benefit from collaboration with the other: the new mechanistic framework can gain by taking into account what happens outside individual mechanisms, while the autonomy approach can ground itself in biological research into how the actual components constituting an autonomous system interact and contribute in different ways to realize and maintain the system. To press the case that these two traditions should be constructively integrated we describe how three recent developments in the autonomy tradition together provide a bridge between the two traditions: (1) a framework of work and constraints, (2) a conception of function grounded in the organization of an autonomous system, and (3) a focus on control.

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