Professor: William Bechtel
Office: HSS 8076
Office Hours: Tuesday,Thursday 2:30-3:30
Telephone: 822-4461
Email: bill AT

Philosophy 212
Topics in the Philosophy of Science: Mechanism
Winter 2003

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.

Note: Many of the links in this document will only work from within the University of California system.

January 8: Mechanism in Early Modern Science
For background see:
Westfall, Richard S. (1971). The construction of modern science. New York: Wiley, chapters 1-5
Boas, Marie (1952), The establishment of the mechanical philosophy, Osiris, 10, 412-541

January 15: Mechanism in Physiology and the Vitalist Challenge
Hall, T. S. (1969), A history of general physiology, chapters 36, 44, 45
Bernard, C. (1865), An introduction to experimental medicine, Part II.
Bechtel, W. and Richardson, R. C. (1993), Discovering Complexity, Chapter 5: The rejection of mechanism.

January 21: Salmon and Simon
Salmon, W. (1984), Scientific explanation and the causal structure of the world, chapter 9.
Salmon, W. (1993), Causality without counterfactuals, Philosophy of Science, 61, 297-312.
Simon, H. A. (1996), The sciences of the artificial. Third Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

January 28: Wimsatt
Wimsatt, W. C. (1976), Reductionism, levels of organization, and the mind-body, In Globus/Maxwell/Savodnik, Consciousness and the Brain, 199-267.
Wimsatt, W.C. (1986b), Forms of aggregativity. In Donagan/Perovich/Wedin, Human Nature and Natural Knowledge, 259-291.
Wimsatt, W.C. (1994). The ontology of complex systems: Levels, perspectives and causal thickets. In Matthen/Ware, Biology and Society. Canadian Journal of Philosophy. Suppl. Vol. 20: 207-274.

February 5: Mechanisms in Contemporary Philosophy of Science
Bechtel and Richardson, (1993), Discovering complexity, Chapter 2 “Complex systems and mechanistic explanations”
Machamer, P., Darden, L., and Craver, C. (2000), Thinking about mechanisms, Philosophy of Science, 67, 1-25.
Glennan, S. (1996), Mechanisms and the Nature of Causation, Erkenntnis, 44, 49-71.
Thagard, P. (1998), Explaining disease: Correlations, causes, and mechanisms. Minds and Machines, 8: 61-78.

February 12: Laws, Causes, and Mechanisms
Ahn, W-k, and Kalish, C. W. (2000), The role of mechanism beliefs in causal reasoning. In F. Keil and R. Wilson, Explanation and cognition, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Cartwright, N. (1999), The Dappled Universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, chapters 1, 3
S. Glennan (1997), Capacities, Universality and Singularity, Philosophy of Science, 64, 605-626
Cummins, R. (2000), "How Does It Work?" versus "What Are the Laws?": Two Conceptions of Psychological. In F. Keil and R. Wilson, Explanation and cognition, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

February 19: Discovering Complex Mechanisms
Bechtel, W. and Richardson, R. C. (1993), Discovering complexity, Chapters 6, 7
Darden, L., and Craver, C.F.(2002) "Strategies in the Interfield Discovery of the Mechanism of Protein Synthesis," Studies in the History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 33, 1-28.

February 26: Experimenting on Mechanism
Glymour, C. (1994) On the Methods of Cognitive Neuropsychology, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 45, 815-835
Craver, C. (2002), Interlevel Experiments and Multilevel Mechanisms in the Neuroscience of Memory. Philosophy of Science, 69, S83-S97.
Bechtel, W. (manuscript). The epistemology of evidence in cognitive neuroscience

March 5: Mechanisms and Levels
Bechtel, W. (1995). Biological and Social Constraints on Cognitive Processes: The Need for Dynamical Interactions Between Levels of Inquiry, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 20, 133-164.
Kim, J. Mind in a Physical World, Selections
Craver, C. F. and Bechtel, W. (in process) Top-Down Causation

March 12: Non Mechanisms?
Bechtel, W. and Richardson, R. C. (1993), Discovering Complexity, Chapter 9
Van Orden, G., Pennington, Stone, G. O. (2001), What do double dissociations prove?Cognitive Science, 25, 111-172.