The causal structure of mechanisms

Peter Menzies*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


Recently, a number of philosophers of science have claimed that much explanation in the sciences, especially in the biomedical and social sciences, is mechanistic explanation. I argue the account of mechanistic explanation provided in this tradition has not been entirely satisfactory, as it has neglected to describe in complete detail the crucial causal structure of mechanistic explanation. I show how the interventionist approach to causation, especially within a structural equations framework, provides a simple and elegant account of the causal structure of mechanisms. This account explains the many useful insights of traditional accounts of mechanism, such as Carl Craver's account in his book Explaining the Brain (2007), but also helps to correct the omissions of such accounts. One of these omissions is the failure to provide an explicit formulation of a modularity constraint that plays a significant role in mechanistic explanation. One virtue of the interventionist/structural equations framework is that it allows for a simple formulation of a modularity constraint on mechanistic explanation. I illustrate the role of this constraint in the last section of the paper, which describes the form that mechanistic explanation takes in the computational, information-processing paradigm of cognitive psychology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)796-805
Number of pages10
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012


  • Causal explanation
  • Interventionism
  • Mechanisms
  • Mechanistic explanation
  • Modularity
  • Structural equations


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