An explanatory taste for mechanisms

Publication Name

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences


Mechanistic explanations, according to one prominent account, are derived from objective explanations (Craver 2007, 2014). Mechanistic standards of explanation are in turn pulled from nature, and are thereby insulated from the values of investigators, since explanation is an objectively defined achievement grounded in the causal structure of the world (Craver 2014). This results in the closure of mechanism’s explanatory standards—it is insulated from the values, norms and goals of investigators. I raise two problems with this position. First, it relies on several ontological claims which, while plausible, fail to guarantee the objectivity of mechanistic explanatory standards to the degree of certainty required. Second, Craver’s position itself introduces a value–laden explanatory standard—the 3M requirement (Kaplan & Craver 2011)—which undermines the closure of explanatory standards. I show how in practice mechanistic explanation is in part guided by explanatory taste, shorthand for background contextual values that influence our standards of explanation. Mechanism often has a particular pragmatically-oriented taste for control, and gerrymanders explanatory standards in order to obtain it. I conclude by arguing that objectivity, rather than being obtained through the right set of explanatory standards, is better thought of as the result of processes of intersubjective criticism, which renders visible the contextual values of communities of investigators and allows them to be controlled for (Longino 1990).

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