Do good/real explanations cite mechanisms?

  • Clarifying the question

    A man pushes a large gear that is connected to two other gears.

    Do real explanations cite mechanisms involved in bringing about the effect?

    • Explanation = def. A statement that removes puzzlement.
    • Mechanism = def. “entities (or parts) whose activities and interactions are organized in a way that they produce the phenomenon.”1
    1. This definition comes from S.S Glennan, The New Mechanical Philosophy (Oxford), Forthcoming. However,

      Carl Craver & James Tabery: “These ecumenical characterizations intentionally downplay the fact that the term “mechanism” is used differently in different scientific and philosophical contexts (see Levy 2013 and Andersen 2014a,b for alternative overviews of the differences). Indeed, much of the progress in the early years involved learning to recognize the many ways that the term “mechanism” can be used and the many commitments that can be undertaken in its name. (For still other characterizations of mechanism, see Woodward (2002), Fagan (2012), Nicholson (2012), and Garson (2013)). Taking these ecumenical views as a starting point, we now consider the four basic components: 1) the phenomenon, 2) parts, 3) causings, and 4) organization.” [“Science Mechanisms” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015).]

“Yes, after all…
  • Personal explanations don't cite mechanisms

    Personal explanations do not cite mechanisms.1 This is relevant because personal explanations are legitimate.

    1. J. P. Moreland: “A personal explanation can be epistemically successful without referring to a mechanism or other means by which the hypothesized agent brought about the state of affairs in the explanandum. I can explain the existence and precise nature of a certain arrangement of objects on our dinner table by saying that my wife brought it about so we could have an Italian dinner with the Isslers. That explanation is informative (I can tell it's Italian food we’re having, that we are having the Isslers over and not the Duncans, that my wife did this and not my daughter, and that natural processes are inadequate). In addition, the adequacy of such a personal explanation is quite independent of whether or not I know exactly how my wife did it.” [Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument (Routledge, 2008), 105.]

  • Quarks, etc. behave without mechanisms

    Fundamental entities (e.g. quarks) behave without mechanisms.

    • An infinite regress of mechanical explanations can't exist.
    • Plausible examples exist of entities requiring no mechanisms: electrons, space, God.

    This is relevant because features and behaviors of fundamental entities can still have an explanation.

“No, after all…
  • The causal-mechanical account of explanation is true

    A magician and a woman who he is levitating.

    Salmon's causal-mechanical account of scientific explanation is true. This is relevant because this account requires all explanations to be spatio-temporal.

    No, the causal-mechanical account is not true;…

    • The account misses property-relations and magnitudes.
    • Mark transferability in the account can be explanatorily irrelevant.
    • Causal etiologies need not be spatio-temporal.1
    1. The idea that explanation requires spatio-temporal causal etiologies leaves it susceptible to both false negatives and false positives.
      False negatives
      • “Action at a distance” is possible (w/o contact-markings). Examples include gravitational theory, causation-by-omission, as well as causation by so-called “double prevention” or “disconnection”. Similarly, the cause of gas diffusion appears not to be causal-mechanical.

        James Woodward: “How exactly does the causal mechanical model avoid the (disastrous) conclusion that any successful explanation of the behavior of the gas must trace the trajectories of individual molecules?” [“Scientific Explanation”, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

        False positives

      • The account implies that a man's failing to become pregnant is explained by his taking birth control. However, this is absurd.
      • …The account entails irrelevant details belong in explanations.
        James Woodward: “For example, while the detailed description of the individual causal processes involved in the operation of the market for oranges presumably will describe whether individual consumers purchase oranges by cash, check, or credit card, whether information about the freeze is communicated by telephone or email, and so on, all of this is to a first approximation irrelevant to the equilibrium price—given the supply and demand curves, the equilibrium price will be the same as long as there is a market in which consumers are able to purchase oranges by some means, information about the freeze and about prices is available to buyers and sellers in some form, and so on.” [“Scientific Explanation”, in _The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy_]