Constraint‐Based Reasoning for Search and Explanation: Strategies for Understanding Variation and Patterns in Biology

Dialectica 70 (3):343-374 (2016)
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Life scientists increasingly rely upon abstraction-based modeling and reasoning strategies for understanding biological phenomena. We introduce the notion of constraint-based reasoning as a fruitful tool for conceptualizing some of these developments. One important role of mathematical abstractions is to impose formal constraints on a search space for possible hypotheses and thereby guide the search for plausible causal models. Formal constraints are, however, not only tools for biological explanations but can be explanatory by virtue of clarifying general dependency-relations and patterning between functions and structures. We describe such situations as constraint-based explanations and argue that these differ from mechanistic strategies in important respects. While mechanistic explanations emphasize change-relating causal features, constraint-based explanations emphasize formal dependencies and generic organizational features that are relatively independent of lower-level changes in causal details. Our distinction between mechanistic and constraint-based explanations is pragmatically motivated by the wish to understand scientific practice. We contend that delineating the affordances and assumptions of different explanatory questions and strategies helps to clarify tensions between diverging scientific practices and the innovative potentials in their combination. Moreover, we show how constraint-based explanation integrates several features shared by otherwise different philosophical accounts of abstract explanatory strategies in biology.



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Nicholaos Jones
University of Alabama, Huntsville

References found in this work

Minimal Model Explanations.Robert W. Batterman & Collin C. Rice - 2014 - Philosophy of Science 81 (3):349-376.
Models and Analogies in Science.Mary B. Hesse - 1966 - Philosophy and Rhetoric 3 (3):190-191.
Abstraction and the Organization of Mechanisms.Arnon Levy & William Bechtel - 2013 - Philosophy of Science 80 (2):241-261.
On the Explanatory Role of Mathematics in Empirical Science.Robert W. Batterman - 2010 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 61 (1):1-25.

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