Medical Humanities Series Talks: Lauren Nicole Ross (UCI)

Department: Philosophy

Date and Time: January 24, 2018 | 12:30 PM-2:00 PM

Event Location: HIB 55

Event Details


Title: Pathway explanation in biology and medicine

For nearly two decades few topics in philosophy of science have received as much attention as mechanistic explanation. One motivation for these accounts is that scientists frequently use the term “mechanism” in their explanations of biological and biomedical phenomena. Scientists, of course, use a variety of causal concepts in their explanations, including concepts like pathways, cascades, triggers, and processes. Despite this variety, mainstream mechanis-tic accounts interpret all of these concepts with the notion of a mechanism. This leads to a significant problem. Although philosophers use the notion of a mechanism interchangeably with other causal concepts, this is not something that scientists always do. Consider the notion of a pathway, which commonly figures in biological and biomedical explanation. Ex-amples of this concept include gene expression pathways, metabolic pathways, anatomical pathways, developmental pathways, and ecological pathways. Scientists often distinguish pathways from mechanisms. They claim that a single pathway can be instantiated by dif-ferent mechanisms, that distinct pathways can have similar mechanisms, and that pathways can be discovered without knowledge of the mechanisms that underlie them.

These points raise a number of puzzles for the dominant mechanistic program. If all or most of the causal concepts in these sciences are well interpreted with the notion of a mechanism, why do scientists often distinguish mechanisms from these other concepts?Why do they use a variety of causal terms if the single notion of mechanism would suffice?Finally, what explains their seemingly consistent use of particular causal concepts in some situations, while not in others? These puzzles suggest that it is worth exploring how scientists distinguish various causal concepts and how these distinctions matter for understanding causal explanation in these domains. This talk examines how the mechanism and pathway concepts are used in these sciences and how they figure in explanatory practice. I argue that these concepts have distinct features, that they are associated with different strategies of causal investigation, and that they figure in importantly distinct types of explanation.