“Looking Up” and “Looking Down”: On the Dual Character of Mechanistic Explanations



Mechanistic explanation is at present the received view of scientific explanation. One of its central features is the idea that mechanistic explanations are both “downward looking” and “upward looking”: they explain by offering information about the internal constitution of the mechanism as well as the larger environment in which the mechanism is situated. That is, they offer both constitutive and contextual explanatory information. Adequate mechanistic explanations, on this view, accommodate the full range of explanatory factors both “above” and “below” the target phenomenon. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate that mechanistic explanation cannot furnish both constitutive and contextual information simultaneously, because these are different types of explanation with distinctly different aims. Claims that they can, I argue, depend on several intertwined confusions concerning the nature of explanation. Particularly, such claims tend to conflate mechanistic and functional explanation, which I argue ought to be understood as distinct. Conflating them threatens to oversell the explanatory power of mechanisms and obscures the means by which they explain. I offer two broad reasons in favor of distinguishing mechanistic and functional explanation: the first concerns the direction of explanation of each, and the second concerns the type of questions to which these explanations offer answers. I suggest an alternative picture on which mechanistic explanation is understood as fundamentally constitutive, and according to which an adequate understanding of a phenomenon typically requires supplementing the mechanistic explanation with a functional explanation.


Explanation Mechanistic explanation Functional explanation 



I am grateful to Colin Allen and Carlos Zednik for many years of discussion about mechanisms, and to Antony Aumann, Zac Cogley, and Kristopher Phillips for reading and providing helpful commentary on an early draft of this paper.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Trinity CollegeHartfordUSA

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