Causal Concepts in Biology: How Pathways Differ from Mechanisms and Why It Matters

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 72 (1):131-158 (2021)
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Abstract

In the last two decades few topics in philosophy of science have received as much attention as mechanistic explanation. A significant motivation for these accounts is that scientists frequently use the term “mechanism” in their explanations of biological phenomena. While scientists appeal to a variety of causal concepts in their explanations, many philosophers argue or assume that all of these concepts are well understood with the single notion of mechanism. This reveals a significant problem with mainstream mechanistic accounts– although philosophers use the term “mechanism” interchangeably with other causal concepts, this is not something that scientists always do. This paper analyses two causal concepts in biology–the notions of “mechanism” and “pathway”–and how they figure in biological explanation. I argue that these concepts have unique features, that they are associated with distinct strategies of causal investigation, and that they figure in importantly different types of explanation.

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Author's Profile

Lauren N. Ross
University of California, Irvine

References found in this work

Thinking about mechanisms.Peter Machamer, Lindley Darden & Carl F. Craver - 2000 - Philosophy of Science 67 (1):1-25.
Explaining the Brain.Carl F. Craver - 2007 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
Explanation: a mechanist alternative.William Bechtel & Adele Abrahamsen - 2005 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 36 (2):421-441.

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