Design explanation: determining the constraints on what can be alive

Erkenntnis 67 (1):65-80 (2007)
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This paper is concerned with reasonings that purport to explain why certain organisms have certain traits by showing that their actual design is better than contrasting designs. Biologists call such reasonings 'functional explanations'. To avoid confusion with other uses of that phrase, I call them 'design explanations'. This paper discusses the structure of design explanations and how they contribute to scientific understanding. Design explanations are contrastive and often compare real organisms to hypothetical organisms that cannot possibly exist. They are not causal but appeal to functional dependencies between an organism's different traits. These explanations point out that because an organism has certain traits, it cannot be alive if the trait to be explained were replaced by a specified alternative. They can be understood from a mechanistic point of view as revealing the constraints on what mechanisms can be alive.



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Arno Wouters
Utrecht University