Notes and Comments

Please leave any comments, suggestions, or feedback to the website here. We will periodically insert notes on potential improvements and revisions in progress.

Egil AspremNotes and Comments

Comments 4

  1. Ann Taves

    The BBHE is a work in progress that will develop as the new mechanistic approaches to explanation are more fully integrated with research in the humanities. In that spirit, we view what you see here as BBHE 1.0. We are currently collaborating on a short book on Explanation for the Concepts in the Study of Religion Series at Equinox that is suggesting material we will want to incorporate in version 2.0. In the meantime, we would appreciate your comments and feedback on the site and any suggestions you might have for future versions. You will also notice that we have only included a sample entry on the Projects page. We will be asking those we know are using this type of approach to list your work as illustrative examples. Others are welcome to send us their information via email as well.

    Egil Asprem –
    Ann Taves –

  2. Warren Frisina

    Great site. I admit to being concerned about the way that the new mechanism seems to lose track of the fact that it is relying on a metaphoric extension of our experience with things we make (machines that do what we tell them because we arrange them in certain ways) to virtually everything. Why privilege mechanical causation over other forms? Ultimately, there is something of the old argument between physics and biology: “Which gets to be queen of the sciences?” The problem with that argument is that both sides tend to treat their explanations as literal descriptions rather than metaphoric extensions. I’m more persuaded these days by aspects of the Lakoff/Johnson project, and thus tend to see mechanical causation as a very useful metaphor rather than a literal description of what is happening. This is important because there are costs to the mechanistic model, that modern philosopher have been wrestling with for centuries. It’s part of the reason philosophers like Dewey and Whitehead opted for organismic metaphors. I’ll be interested to follow as this page develops and as the “new mechanism” emerges, though I remain skeptical of anything that relies on a single metaphoric structure for helping us to understand causation. Everything has a cause, no doubt. But why we tend to assume that the cause must be mechanically induced is not yet clear to me.

    1. Post
      Egil Asprem

      Hi Warren,
      It’s great to hear from you! Thanks for this thoughtful response.
      You raise two related issues that we’d like to address: one about metaphors, the other about causality. As you will see from the “Basic Concepts” section of the website, we too find metaphor theory very useful in thinking about how we represent and approach complex phenomena. The new mechanism relies on the basic metaphors of PART-WHOLE and SCALE. It is meant to conjure up the question of how wholes work by looking at their interacting parts – and how individual parts acquire specific functions due to being parts of wholes. In this regard, we think, the most pertinent aspects of the organicist critique of early last century have been absorbed in the new mechanism.

      Regarding mechanisms and causality, this is an issue we have been thinking hard about over the summer, in writing we’ve been doing on explanation in the study of religion. We are planning to add a section about “causation” to the website at some point, since the relationship between mechanisms and causes, and the types of causes allowed for in a (new) mechanistic description is not necessarily obvious. This is especially the case given the history of the old mechanistic philosophy, which did indeed focus on a very narrow understanding of causation – typically what philosophers of science now call “conserved quantity accounts,” viewing causal interactions as strictly local relations in which some physically observable quantity (motion, for example) is transferred from one relata to another. Conservation of inertial motion through contact action is the model case of such old-school mechanistic interactions. It is machine-like and physics based.

      The new mechanism makes an explicit break with physics-based understandings of causality, such as the conserved quantity account and the “covering laws” account associated primarily with Hempel. The new mechanists are generally coming out of the so-called “special sciences,” notably biology, neuroscience, psychology and the medical sciences. Their project is to develop notions of mechanical explanation that can deal with much more complicated causal interactions, and that are not constrained by the search for “general laws” (which tend to be useless in accounting for biological processes). In other words, they are not seeking to reduce complex biological phenomena to the “rock bottom” mechanisms on some prioritized lower level of reality, but to redefine “mechanisms” in a wider, more complex, way that mirrors the explanatory work that scientists in the vast majority of the natural sciences actually do.

      So returning to the part-whole metaphor, the new mechanists define mechanisms in terms interactions between entities that produce some phenomenon of interest without fixing the parts and wholes to specific ontological “levels”. Looking for “mechanisms” for some phenomenon of interest simply means looking for causally relevant entities and processes that help explain its behavior (there’s a big discussion, though, on what constitutes “causal relevance”; new mechanists mostly go for activity-based and counterfactual-manipulationist accounts, emphasizing entities that have the capacity to do something, and looking for relevance by seeing whether anything happens when an entity is removed from a system of interacting parts). Where one searches for the “parts” of mechanisms will always be relative to methodological choices of what phenomenon one seeks to explain, and each interacting element in a mechanism can itself be taken as a phenomenon to be explained – leading to a search for further causal elements that might explain the behavior of that phenomenon. So we get mechanisms nested within mechanisms, where “causality” is pragmatically defined relative to each level that is of interest to the researcher.

      It is precisely this pragmatic, open-ended view of what might constitute a “causal power” within a mechanism that we find attractive for looking at even more complex phenomena, such as social interactions, and the formation of movements and institutions. If we are to explain the behavior of some social group, for example, we need to include the behaviors of intentional agents as interacting causal powers. With a “levels of mechanisms” approach, we are also allowed to zoom in and explain the behavior of particular agents with reference to subpersonal or subintentional processes that may help explain intentional actions. The list of causally relevant entities may then expand dramatically, as psychological factors, social relations, goal-directed behaviors, constraints from material environments etc., etc., all contribute to specific outcomes. This, of course, raises further questions about things such as generalizability and repeatability of (social) mechanisms – which is another big discussion in contemporary philosophy of social science that we are currently exploring.

      We hope this begins to clarify our position on these complex issues, and hope you will stick around as we update the site to address them.

      Ann and Egil

  3. Warren Frisina

    Ann and Egil,

    Thanks for the detailed response. It was quite helpful, especially because I spent most of the weekend reading and exploring the references in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry Mechanism in the Sciences. I have a much better sense of what you are aiming for now and can see the distinction between “old style, physics based” understandings of mechanical causation and the more complicated attempts to present a theory of causation closer to what must be happening within biological systems. I found this article particularly helpful, but I’ve got a list of a dozen more to get through: Chemero A. and M. Silberstein, 2008, “After the Philosophy of Mind: Replacing Scholasticism with Science”, Philosophy of Science, 75: 1–27. I’ll keep track of the website as it develops and remain interested in the project. I still admit to some skepticism about the decision to label this project the new “mechanism.” I feel like the old physics based understanding of the term will continue to infect and confuse. While it has advantages of sounding like reductionist strategies that have been so important to the success of science to date, I worry that it masks what is most interesting about the project for all but a few who develop the expertise to understand precisely what is being said.

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