Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program



English (en)

Date of Award

January 2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Carl Craver


Recent work in the philosophy of biology has sought after an account of mechanistic explanation. Biologists frequently encounter causal relationships that beg for explanation. For example, genes appear to encode for particular phenotypes. How does gene expression work? Biologists posit mechanisms to explain the link between cause and effect. Thus, gene expression would be explained by an appeal to a complex mechanism linking the gene to the phenotype, as such an appeal will provide answers to broad ranges of "how" and "why" questions about the causal relationship, and predict novel effects. Here, I focus on a recent problem raised for mechanistic explanation. Mechanism discovery is an inferential process which takes empirical data as premises, and produces a causal model of a mechanism as the conclusion. Such an inferential process requires rules, yet few accounts of mechanistic explanation attempt to provide them. Such inferential rules could be used to answer related normative questions facing accounts of mechanistic explanation. In particular, they can be brought to bear on questions of explanatory relevance: Which components are part of the mechanism, and how can we know? and questions of explanatory adequacy: When is a mechanistic explanation a good explanation? I argue that a formal account of mechanistic explanation grounded in a manipulationist account of causation can answer these kinds of question. A thoroughgoing defense of my account, however, requires that I defend its assumptions. Among the assumptions is the highly contentious principle known as `modularity'. Modularity is the claim that we must be able to independently manipulate each of the various components in a mechanism. The final chapters of my dissertation focus on a thoroughgoing defense of modularity against claims that it is frequently violated, conceptually intractable, or simply inapplicable to especially biological systems.


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