The ups and downs of mechanism realism: Functions, levels, and crosscutting hierarchies

Joe Dewhurst, Alistair M. C. Isaac

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mechanism realists assert the existence of mechanisms as objective structures in the world, but their exact metaphysical commitments are unclear. We introduce Local Hierarchy Realism (LHR) as a substantive and plausible form of mechanism realism. The limits of LHR reveal a deep tension between two aspects of mechanists’ explanatory strategy. Functional decomposition identifies locally relevant entities and activities, while these same entities and activities are also embedded in a nested hierarchy of levels. In principle, a functional decomposition may identify entities engaging in causal interactions that crosscut the hierarchical structure of composition relations, violating the mechanist’s injunction against interlevel causation. We argue that this possibility is realized in the example of ephaptic coupling, a subsidiary process of neural computation that crosscuts the hierarchy derived from synaptic transmission. These considerations undermine the plausibility of LHR as a general view, yet LHR has the advantages that (i) its metaphysical implications are precisely stateable; (ii) the structure it identifies is not reducible to mere aggregate causation; and (iii) it clearly satisfies intuitive and informal definitions of mechanism. We conclude by assessing the prospects for a form of mechanism realism weaker than LHR that nevertheless satisfies all three of these requirements.
Original languageEnglish
Early online date3 May 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 3 May 2021


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