Archives For mechanisms

Author Information: Daniel Little, University of Michigan-Dearborn, UnderstandingSociety, Daniel Little: Wikipedia Entry,

Little, Daniel. 2012. More challenges for social mechanisms: Contribution to the Persson-Chuang discussion. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (9): 28-32

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The extended discussion stimulated by Johannes Persson’s (2012a) critique of Elster’s definition of causal mechanisms in this forum is a valuable one. Anyone interested in causal mechanisms theory will be appreciative of the thoughtful contributions offered by Persson (2012b) and Kimberly Chuang (2012).

The core of Persson’s critique is that Elster appears to define a causal mechanism in a way that incorporates the idea of unknown triggers or indeterminate outcomes as a part of the definition. Persson finds fault with this approach on the ground that it implies that when we gain more knowledge about how a mechanism M works, M is no longer a mechanism (because its trigger or outcomes are no longer unknown). This is deeply counterintuitive: more knowledge produces less explanatory power.

Kimberly Chuang thinks there is a flaw in Persson’s argument against Elster. She provides a careful exegesis of what Elster might have meant with his original specification of causal mechanisms as well as a sustained argument intended to show that Persson’s arguments fail. Her argument is complex, but it comes down to the claim that the examples Persson provides are actually specifications of particular (local) triggers rather than general triggers. So the item remains a causal mechanism after all — against Persson’s conclusion. This is the thrust of her claim that “Persson’s argument inappropriately overlooks the difference between applications of mechanisms rather than mechanisms themselves” (2012: 2). Continue Reading…

Author Information: Kimberly Chuang, University of Michigan,

Chuang, Kimberly. 2012. In defense of Elster’s mechanisms. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (9): 1-19

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Mechanisms are a species of causal explanation that apply in situations where there is unavoidable indeterminacy. In this paper, I defend Jon Elster’s account of mechanisms against Johannes Persson’s recently published critiques. Persson claims to have identified a dilemma to which Elster is committed. Elster stipulates that mechanisms must be indeterminate in either their triggering conditions or their consequences. Persson argues that we can resolve the indeterminacies in certain mechanisms. Upon doing so, we no longer, by definition, have mechanisms. At the same time, these resolved mechanisms remain only explanatorily local, and so fall short of the explanatory strength of laws. Persson concludes that by Elster’s account, eliminating the indeterminacies of mechanisms actually leaves us at an explanatory deficit: we are left with something that is no longer a mechanism, but that still falls short of law-like explanatory strength. I counter that in his argument, Persson has overlooked the distinction between improved explanatory strength in a purely local sense and improved explanatory strength in a generalized sense. In addition, Persson has also overlooked the distinction between individual instances, or applications of mechanisms, and mechanisms themselves. I conclude that Persson has not, in fact, discovered any dilemma in Elster. Persson’s argument occurs at the level of mere applications of mechanisms. His challenges to Elster pertain to improved explanatory strength in a purely local sense. What he needed to have done, in order to complete his case against Elster, was show that the alleged shortcomings of Elster’s mechanistic account occurred at the level of mechanisms themselves, and pertained to improved explanatory strength in a generalized sense.

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