Phil 520: Topics in Philosophy of Science: Mechanisms

Professors Carl Craver William Bechtel
Office Busch 204 Busch 225F
Telephone 935-7146 935-6873
Office Hours Wednesday 3:30-5 Wednesday, 2:30-4:00


I. Course Description

Theories and explanations in biology, cognitive science, neuroscience and psychology typically describe or purport to describe mechanisms. Accordingly, many of the activities of scientists in these disciplines can be understood in terms of the search for mechanisms. What, exactly, is a mechanism? What counts as an adequate description of a mechanism? What is distinctive about mechanistic explanation? How does the search for mechanisms shape the search for evidence and the design of experiments? Are there strategies for discovering and testing mechanisms? Under what conditions are these strategies likely to succeed or fail? How is the contemporary conception of a mechanism related to previous incarnations of the mechanical philosophy? What is distinctive about theories that describe mechanisms? What is the relationship between mechanisms and laws of nature? What is the best way to understand the notion of causality implicit in the notion of a mechanism? These questions and more will be discussed using case studies from the mechanistic sciences.

II. Requirements

This course is a seminar, and as such will be heavily focused around discussion.  Students must come to class prepared and ready to discuss the material assigned.  During the first half of the course each student will be expected to give one seminar presentation and to submit a short paper (approximately 5 pages).  Students are encouraged to do their paper on the topic of their presentation. During the second half of the course each student will give another presentation and submit a term paper (approximately 15 pages).   The short paper and presentations will each count for 20% of your grade, the final paper for 40%.  If possible, please turn your papers in an electronic format, sending them by email attachment to

III. Schedule of Topics and Readings

Most readings will be available in the course file folder in the Department of Philosophy office.  Selections from Bechtel and Richardson, Discovering Complexity, are available on the web (

The following schedule is tentative.  Additional readings may be assigned over the course of the semester.  Depending on interests within the seminar, some topics may be changed.

1)January 16: Views of Mechanism In Contemporary Philosophy of Science

Bechtel and Richardson, Chapter 2 “Complex Systems and Mechanistic Explanations”
Machamer, Darden and Craver “Thinking About Mechanisms”
Glennan “Mechanisms and the Nature of Explanation”
2)January 23: Ancient Antecedents of the Mechanical Philosophy
Pseudo-Aristotle “Questions of Mechanics”
Fragments of Democritus and Epicurus
Lennox: “Aristotle, Galileo and the Mixed Sciences.”
3)January 30: Modern Mechanism I
Garber: “A Clockwork World: Descartes and the Mechanical Philosophy”
Westfall: Construction of Modern Science, Chapters II-V
4)February 6: Modern Mechanism II
Djiksterhuis, Mechanization of the World Picture Epilogue
M. Boas: “Establishment of the Mechanical Philosophy”
5)February 13: 18-19C Mechanism and Vitalism
Hall, History of General Physiology, Chapters 36, 44, 45
Bernard: An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, Part II: Experimentation with Living Beings
Bechtel and Richardson, Chapter 5, “The Rejection of Mechanism”
6)February 20: Mechanistic Explanation and Theory Structure
Schaffner: “Theory Structure, Reduction and Disciplinary Integration in Biology”
Salmon Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World, Chapter 9
Craver “Structures of Scientific Theories”
7)February 27: Levels 1: Levels, Perspectives, Thickets, and Decomposition
Wimsatt “Complexity and Organization”
Wimsatt “Reduction, Levels of Organization and the Mind-Body Problem”

Short Paper Due

8)March 13: Levels 2: A Primary Sense of Levels in Neuroscience and Biology
Churchland and Sejnowski: Computational Brain, Chapter 2
Craver: “Role Mechanisms, Functions and Hierarchy”
Bechtel: “Biological and Social Constraints on Cognitive Processes: The Need for Dynamical Interactions Between Levels of Inquiry”
9)March 20: Levels 3: Levels, Overdetermination and Exclusion
Kim: Mind in a Physical World, Selections
Marcus: “Strong and Weak Overdetermination
10)March 27: Laws and Causality 1
Cartwright: The Dappled Universe, chapters 1, 3
S. Glennan: “Capacities, Universality and Singularity”
Bogen: “What we talk about when we talk about causality” at
11)April 3: Laws and Causality 2
Salmon “Causality Without Counterfactuals”
Hitchcock “Salmon on Explanatory Relevance”
12)April 10: Experimentation on Mechanisms
Glymour: “On the Methods of Cognitive Neuropsychology”
Craver: “Interlevel Experiments and Multilevel Mechanisms in the Neuroscience of Memory”
Van Orden., Pennington, Stone, G. O. “What do double dissociations prove?”
13)April 17: Organization and Discovery
Bechtel and Richardson: Chapter 7, “Integrated Mechanisms”
Craver and Darden “Discovering Mechanisms in Neurobiology”
14)April 24: Non-Mechanisms
Bechtel and Richardson, Chapter 9, “Emergent Phenomena”
Van Gelder, “What might cognition be, if not computation
Final Paper Due: April 29