Constraints on Localization and Decomposition as Explanatory Strategies in the Biological Sciences 2.0

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Title

Studies in Brain and Mind

Publication Date



This paper is a follow up to Silberstein and Chemero (2013), wherein it was argued that contra the new mechanist philosophy, localization and decomposition often fail to obtain in complex biological systems. Herein it is argued that: (1) Mechanistic explanation is historically and still often defined exhaustively by the new mechanists in terms of localization and decomposition; and (2) There are several key features of most complex biological systems related to contextuality and global constraints that violate localization and decomposition, and this fact is not an artifact of network approaches or formal models. Thus, new mechanists must either concede that there are many such cases wherein complex biological systems fail to be fully explicable via mechanistic explanation or, they must reject the claim that localization and decomposition are both necessary and sufficient for mechanistic explanation. Either horn of the dilemma creates problems for the new mechanists. On the first horn, the mechanistic philosophy is often false because, localization and decomposition generally fail to obtain and definitely fail to obtain in crucial cases such as systems neuroscience and systems biology. On the second horn, giving up the claim that localization and decomposition are both necessary and sufficient for mechanistic explanation, threatens to make the new mechanist philosophy too broad, non-unique or downright trivial. The essence of mechanistic explanation, what distinguishes it from mere causal or dynamical explanation, is its compositional or constitutive character. If the new mechanists jettison this feature of mechanistic explanation, if they fully acknowledge the essentially dynamical nature of such explanations and systems, it is not clear what if anything is unique about mechanistic explanation. Indeed, it is argued that many of the more liberal approaches to mechanistic explanation, suggest a picture of complex biological systems that comports more with contextual emergence than with the compositional and constitutive origins of the new mechanist philosophy. Thus, the new mechanistic philosophy is either largely false, non-unique or retreats to being just a description of scientific methodology.



First Page


Last Page