Mechanisms and powers

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source: William Bechtel, Discovering Cell Mechanisms: The Creation of Modern Cell Biology

The causal-powers approach to the understanding of causation is sometimes presented as an exclusive alternative to both traditional regularity theories and to more recent causal mechanism theories. In an earlier post I discussed Ruth Groff’s contributions to this topic. Here I would like to present a provocative view: that the causal mechanisms and causal powers are complementary rather than contradictory. The causal mechanisms theory benefits by being supplemented by a causal powers theory and the causal powers theory benefits by being supplemented by a causal mechanisms theory. In other words, the two theories are not exclusive alternatives to each other, but rather serve to identify different parts of the whole of causation.

The causal powers theory rests on the claim that causation is conveyed from cause to effect through the active powers and capacities that inhere in the entities making up the cause. The causal mechanisms theory comes down to the idea that cause and effect are mediated by a series of events or interactions that lead (typically) from the occurrence of the cause to the occurrence of the effect. In other words, cause and effect are linked by real underlying causal sequences (often repeatable sequences).

My thesis of the mutual compatibility of powers and mechanisms goes along these lines. If we press down on a putative mechanisms explanation, we are led eventually to postulating a set of causal powers that provide the motive force of the postulated mechanisms. But equally, if we press down on the claim that a certain kind of entity has a specified causal power or disposition, we are led to hypotheses about what mechanisms are set in play be its constituents so as to bring about this disposition.

Begin with a causal mechanism story:

  • C => {x happens bringing about y, bringing about z, bringing about u, which is E} => E

How is it that the sub-links of this chain of mechanism pieces happen to work to bring about their consequent? We seem to have two choices: We can look to discover a further underlying mechanism; or we can postulate that the sub-link entity or structure has the power to bring about its consequent. So if we push downward within the terms of a mechanism explanation, one way to close the story is by postulating a causal power at some level.

Now start with a causal power claim. Suppose we assert that:

  • Salt has the causal power of making H2O electrically conductive when dissolved.

Is this simply an unanalyzable fact about salt (or saline solution)? It is not; instead, we can look downward to identify the physical mechanisms that are brought into play when salt enters solution in H2O. That mechanism is well understood: the Na+ and Cl- ions created by the dissolution of salt permit free electrons to pass through the solution.

So we can explain the causal power by discovering the causal mechanism that gives rise to it; we explain links in the putative mechanism by alluding to the powers of the entities involved at that stage; and we can explain other things by referring to the causal powers that we have discovered to be associated with various kinds of things and structures.

If we take this set of possibilities seriously, then powers and mechanisms are answering different questions within the causal nexus. The reference to powers answers the question, “What does x do?”, while the reference to mechanisms answers the question, “How does x work?”

From a scientific point of view, it is always legitimate to ask how the powers of an entity or structure come to be in the natural world. What is it about the micro-structure of the thing in virtue of which the thing’s properties are established? In fact, this is one of the key intellectual challenges of the sciences. And this is a request for specification of some of the mechanisms that are at work. But likewise, it is always legitimate to ask what gives force to a given mechanism; and here we are eventually driven back to the answer, “some of the components of the mechanism have X, Y, Z powers to affect other entities” without further analysis within that particular explanation.

One might imagine that there are primitive causal powers — powers attached to primitive particles that have no underlying components or mechanisms.  We might begin to give a list of primitive causal powers: mechanical interactions among physical objects (transfer of momentum from one particle to another); electromagnetic properties inhering in one object and creating forces affecting other objects; gravitational forces among objects possessing mass; the causal interactions that occur within the central nervous system. And we might seek to demonstrate that all causal powers depend on combinations of these sorts of “primitive” causal powers — a kind of Hobbesian materialism.  But this is needlessly strenuous from a metaphysical point of view. Better is to consider the middle-level range of powers and mechanisms where we are able to move upwards and downwards in our search for underlying causal mechanisms and supervening causal powers.

This line of thought suggests that questions about the metaphysics of causation are perhaps less pressing than they are sometimes made out to be. A thing’s powers are not irreducible attributes of the thing; rather, they are the orderly consequence of the composition of the thing and the causal properties of those components and their interactions. It is hard to see that much turns on whether we think of the world as consisting of entities with powers, or as composites with system properties created by their components. The key question seems to be something like this: what is implied when we make a causal assertion? Both CP and CM agree that the core implication is the idea that one event, structure, or condition brought about the occurrence of another event, structure, or condition.  And the languages of both powers and mechanisms do a pretty good job of expressing what we mean in asserting this implication.

(John Dupré takes a similarly ecumenical view about several approaches to the theory of causation in a recent article, “Living Causes”, where he advocates for what he calls “causal pluralism”; link. He writes: “I believe that causality is a complex and diverse set of phenomena, and most or all of these accounts provide valuable and complementary perspectives on the topic. Such a pluralistic view is quite a common one among contemporary philosophers; however there are significant differences in the form that such pluralisms can take” (20). On the mechanisms side within the philosophy of biology is William Bechtel’s Discovering Cell Mechanisms: The Creation of Modern Cell Biology, who writes: “Beginning in the 1940s an initially small cadre of investigators who were pioneers in the modern discipline of cell biology began to figure out the biochemical mechanisms that enable cells to perform these functions. although miniaturized, the mechanisms they found to be operative in each cell are staggeringly complex” (1 ).)

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