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There are mechanisms – and then there are mechanisms

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Helen Curry.

Mechanisms are all the rage in philosophy of science now and in a number of scientific domains as well. What then is a mechanism? I shall describe three senses common in philosophy: 1) invariant relations (sponsored by James Woodward), 2) causal processes (probably the usual sense in medical literature) and 3) relatively fixed arrangements of parts that act together to afford or explain causal regularities (defended by William Bechtel and by MDC : Machamer, Craver and Darden). I claim these are distinct senses. But Peter Menzies claims that by employing a ‘structural equations’ framework, one can in one fell swoop use 1) the invariant-relations idea to give a much needed explication of the idea of ‘action’ central to 3) and thereby give a much needed account of how mechanisms in sense 3) explain causal regularities.

I think Menzies is really dealing with 2) causal processes all along; his account has no space for 3) parts and their actions. But we need to keep this third sense of ‘mechanism’ centre-stage because it is correct that it is mechanisms in this sense that underwrite the familiar causal processes we rely on throughout daily life and much of science and policy. Without attention to the mechanisms (sense 3)) that afford causal regularities we have no idea how far they stretch nor when and where they will break down. Looking at Menzies’ valiant attempt, as I shall do, and seeing how, if I am right, it fails shows just how true this is. I shall illustrate with some examples from child welfare and development policy.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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