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Mechanistic explanation in Physics

Felline, Laura (2018) Mechanistic explanation in Physics. [Preprint]

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Abstract

The idea at the core of the New Mechanical account of explanation can be summarized in the claim that explaining means showing ‘how things work’. This simple motto hints at three basic features of Mechanistic Explanation (ME): ME is an explanation-how, that implies the description of the processes underlying the phenomenon to be explained and of the entities that engage in such processes. These three elements trace a fundamental contrast with the view inherited from Hume and later from strict logical empiricism (see Creath 2017), focused on epistemic and formal features of science and according to which issues concerning the kind of entities and processes that lie within a theory’s domain are extraneous to science and belong instead to ontology or metaphysics. Philosophers belonging to the new mechanical philosophy believe that the received view of scientific explanation (Hempel 2001), pivoting on the notion of law of nature, overshadows this insight.
Since its origin in the 17th century, mechanical philosophy aimed to explain natural phenomena by reducing them to mechanisms. Traditional attempts to define the concept of mechanism involved the identification of a limited set of fundamental elements as, for instance, contact action, action at a distance, inertial motion (see e.g. Hesse 2005), and, more recently, transmission of a mark, or of a conserved quantity (see Frisch, this volume). The new mechanical philosophy rejects this austere characterization of mechanisms and mechanistic explanation and aim at providing a novel, philosophically rigorous explication of the concept of mechanism and of its role in scientific explanation and practice.
ME has been adopted with profit in philosophy of special sciences (for instance in biomedical sciences, e.g. in the explanation of chemical transmission at synapses ((Machamer, Darden and Craver 2000), MDC henceforth); but also in social sciences, e.g. the three kinds of social mechanisms in Coleman’s analysis of Max Weber’s account of the role of the Protestant ethic in the growth of capitalism (Hedström and Swedberg 1998)), where exceptionless regularities are rarely ever found. In physics, it is generally possible to formulate explanations in law-based form, with the result that the plurality of explanatory forms might be overlooked. This should not come as a surprise, given that physics was the main inspiration for logical empiricists, and, in particular, Newtonian physics was a template for Hempel’s formulation of the covering law model. However, this situation is unfortunate, since, we will argue, knowing how things work is often part of the explanation of physical phenomena. In this chapter, we provide an introduction to the basic features of ME, with specific focus on its application to physics (section 1). The main part of the chapter is devoted to the defence of two theses: on the one hand, some domains of physics are not compatible with mechanistic reasoning and explanation (section 2); on the other hand, a comprehensive account of explanation in physics can’t dispense with ME (section 3).


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Item Type: Preprint
Creators:
CreatorsEmailORCID
Felline, Laura
Keywords: Explanation, Mechanisms, Laws, Measurement problem
Subjects: General Issues > Causation
General Issues > Explanation
General Issues > Laws of Nature
Specific Sciences > Physics
General Issues > Theory Change
Depositing User: Laura Felline
Date Deposited: 01 Jul 2019 04:11
Last Modified: 01 Jul 2019 04:11
Item ID: 16162
Subjects: General Issues > Causation
General Issues > Explanation
General Issues > Laws of Nature
Specific Sciences > Physics
General Issues > Theory Change
Date: 2018
URI: http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/id/eprint/16162

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