Heuristics, Descriptions, and the Scope of Mechanistic Explanation

In P. Braillard & C. Malaterre (eds.), Explanation in Biology. An Enquiry into the Diversity of Explanatory Patterns in the Life Sciences. Dordrecht: Springer. pp. 295-318 (2015)
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Abstract

The philosophical conception of mechanistic explanation is grounded on a limited number of canonical examples. These examples provide an overly narrow view of contemporary scientific practice, because they do not reflect the extent to which the heuristic strategies and descriptive practices that contribute to mechanistic explanation have evolved beyond the well-known methods of decomposition, localization, and pictorial representation. Recent examples from evolutionary robotics and network approaches to biology and neuroscience demonstrate the increasingly important role played by computer simulations and mathematical representations in the epistemic practices of mechanism discovery and mechanism description. These examples also indicate that the scope of mechanistic explanation must be re-examined: With new and increasingly powerful methods of discovery and description comes the possibility of describing mechanisms far more complex than traditionally assumed.

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Carlos Zednik
Eindhoven University of Technology