Biology and Philosophy 35 (5):1-21 (2020)
AbstractMechanistic explanations are often said to explain because they reveal the causal structure of the world. Conversely, dynamical models supposedly lack explanatory power because they do not describe causal structure. The only way for dynamical models to produce causal explanations is via the 3M criterion: the model must be mapped onto a mechanism. This framing of the situation has become the received view around the viability of dynamical explanation. In this paper, I argue against this position and show that dynamical models can themselves reveal causal structure and consequently produce nonmechanistic, dynamical explanations. Taking the example of cell fates from systems biology, I show how dynamical models, and specifically the attractor landscapes they describe, identify the causes of cell differentiation and explain why cells select particular fates. These dynamical features of the system better fit Woodward’s (2010, 2018) criteria of specificity and proportionality and make them the best candidate causes of cell fates than mechanisms. I also show how these causes are irreducible and inaccessible to mechanistic models, making 3M unworkable and counterproductive in this case. Dynamical models can reveal dynamical causes and thereby provide causal explanations.
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