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Discovering Complexity

Decomposition and Localization as Strategies in Scientific Research

William Bechtel and Robert C. Richardson

Publication Year: 2010

In Discovering Complexity, William Bechtel and Robert Richardson examine two heuristics that guided the development of mechanistic models in the life sciences: decomposition and localization.

Published by: The MIT Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-ix

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Preface to the MIT Press Edition

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pp. xi-xii

Since we published Discovering Complexity in 1993, we have been encouraged by the strong response to the ideas in reviews of the book, and even more encouraged by the focus on mechanistic explanation in the philosophical literature. We thought of localization and decomposition as heuristics guiding...

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Preface to the Original Edition

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pp. xiii-xvi

Discovering Complexity represents the culmination of nearly a decade of collaboration. Our work developed out of struggles with the standard philosophical framework of theory reduction, one which we found nearly impossible to apply to the life sciences. We discovered, instead, that the attempts to localize...

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Introduction: Discovering Complexity—Further Perspectives

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pp. xvii-liv

William Wimsatt clearly perceived the centrality in biology of seeking mechanisms to explain phenomena. It was a perception not shared by most philosophers, who persevered in the attempt to fit the life sciences generally, and biology in particular, into the model of nomological explanation that had been...

Part I. Scientific Discovery and Rationality

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Chapter 1. Cognitive Strategies and Scientific Discovery

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pp. 3-16

Logical positivism drew a principled and sharp distinction between the context of justification and that of discovery. According to this view, the empirical evaluation of scientific theories could be submitted to logical analysis, with the goal of specifying the conditions under which a theory would be confirmed or...

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Chapter 2. Complex Systems and Mechanistic Explanations

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pp. 17-32

Our aim is to develop a cognitive model of the dynamics of scientific theorizing that is grounded in actual scientific practice. Our focus is on one kind of explanation, one involved in understanding the behavior of complex systems in biology and psychology. Examples of the complex systems we have in mind are the physiological...

Part II. Emerging Mechanisms

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pp. 35-38

In Chapter 1 we emphasized that our investigation is directed at identifying the cognitive constraints affecting theory development, and in Chapter 2 we introduced decomposition and localization as the central heuristics figuring in our treatment of the development of mechanistic explanations. We turn now...

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Chapter 3. Identifying the Locus of Control

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pp. 39-62

Before developing a mechanistic explanation of a particular phenomenon, one must identify which system is responsible for producing that effect. Identifying a responsible system presupposes several critical decisions. The scientist must segment the system from its context and identify the relevant functions assigned...

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Chapter 4. Direct Localization

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pp. 63-92

Having "isolated" a system and identified it as a locus of control, the next step is to ask how the system does what it does. The goal is one of identifying and elaborating the mechanisms underlying behavior. A variety of approaches are possible. One that is often employed—especially in the earliest stages of a research...

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Chapter 5. The Rejection of Mechanism

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pp. 93-116

Not all scientific investigators see the development of mechanistic explanations as a critical constraint on their models. Even when there is general agreement in identifying a particular higher-level system as a locus of control for some phenomenon, those who do not accept a mechanistic paradigm may reject any attempt...

Part III. Elaborating Mechanisms

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pp. 119-124

In Part 2 we explored the preliminaries to mechanistic explanation. We turn now to the process of developing and elaborating such explanations. This requires showing how an activity that is performed by a whole system is accomplished by having different components perform different functions that contribute to...

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Chapter 6. Complex Localization

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pp. 125-148

Mechanism was often seen as the only viable alternative to vitalism, and it was undertaken despite the fact that the simple mechanistic approaches were not wholly satisfactory as explanations, even on their own terms. At the same time vitalism can be seen as a consequence of mechanism, drawing sustenance from a clear...

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Chapter 7. Integrated Mechanisms

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pp. 149-172

Analysis into localized components and their interactions is a fruitful scientific strategy when the system under study is nearly decomposable; that is, when the organization is relatively simple. In defending near decomposability as a heuristic for human problem-solving, Simon offers two markedly different kinds of reasons...

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Chapter 8. Reconstituting the Phenomena

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pp. 173-195

In the last two chapters we have illustrated the use of localization and decomposition in developing models of complex systems. In all the cases we have discussed, the development of explanatory models was significantly constrained by lower-level theories as well as systemic behavior. These constraints varied in relative...

Part IV. Emergent Mechanism

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pp. 199-201

In Part II we saw that the rejection of localization and decomposition tends to accompany the rejection of a mechanistic program. Providing a mechanism involves describing distinct components, each of which makes a contribution to the performance of the system. This requires both functional and physical independence...

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Chapter 9. "Emergent" Phenomena in Interconnected Networks

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pp. 202-229

The more complex localizationist explanations we examined in Part III are still recognizably mechanistic. Tasks involved in performing a function are divided between components, and system behavior is explained by showing how it is accomplished through the combined performance of the component tasks. Although one might...

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Chapter 10. Constructing Causal Explanations

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pp. 230-244

Our focus has been on decomposition and localization and their role in the development of scientific research programs. We have especially emphasized their heuristic role in the construction of explanatory models within problem domains that are ill structured. In the cases we have discussed there was initially no well-delineated...


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pp. 245-256


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pp. 257-280


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pp. 281-286

E-ISBN-13: 9780262289177
Print-ISBN-13: 9780262514736

Page Count: 340
Publication Year: 2010