Laws and Mechanisms in The Human Sciences

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Abstract

According to an influential epistemological tradition, science explains phenomena on the basis of laws, but the last two decades have witnessed a neo-mechanistic movement that emphasizes the fundamental role of mechanism-based explanations in science, which have the virtue of opening the “black box” of correlations and of providing a genuine understanding of the phenomena. Mechanisms enrich the empirical content of a theory by introducing a new set of variables, helping us to make causal inferences that are not possible on the basis of macro-level correlations (due to well-known problems regarding the underdetermination of causation by correlation). However, the appeal to mechanisms has also a methodological price. They are vulnerable to interference effects; they also face underdetermination problems, because the available evidence often allows different interpretations of the underlying structure of a correlation; they are strongly context-dependent and their individuation as causal patterns can be controversial; they present specific testability problems; finally, mechanism-based extrapolations can be misleading due to the local character of mechanisms. At any rate, the study of mechanisms is an indispensable part of the human sciences, and the problems that they raise can be controlled by quantitative and qualitative methods, and an epistemologically informed exercise of critical thinking.

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