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When Mechanisms Sleep
17 Dec
17. December 2019

When Mechanisms Sleep

In recent years, causal mechanisms have become a focus of attention for philosophers of science. They are thought to produce real-world observable phenomena, figure importantly in explaining these phenomena, and help us predict what happens if we intervene in the world. In this talk, I introduce an important distinction between ‘dormant’ and ‘awake’ mechanisms. In short, dormant mechanisms are mechanisms whose constituent parts have not regularly exercised their causal powers in the observable past, whereas awake mechanisms have. This distinction has important epistemic ramifications: many empirical methods to learn about causal mechanisms rely on observation rather than intervention. Yet, when mechanisms have been dormant, this makes it difficult for us to learn about their features from observation alone. To illustrate the epistemic significance of dormant mechanisms, I draw on a case study from Evidence-Based Policy. Here, it is common to extrapolate policy effects from a study population to an eventual policy target and such inference will routinely need to be supported by mechanistic evidence. However, the usefulness of mechanistic evidence for extrapolation can differ significantly depending on whether mechanisms have been awake or dormant, potentially undermining the success of extrapolation entirely in the latter case. This is a particularly acute concern when policy interventions have the capacity to harm agents, and when especially vulnerable subpopulations are unlikely to be represented in the study populations from which we extrapolate. Against this background, I 1) argue that dormant mechanisms call for more cautious approaches to sampling and experimental design, 2) make suggestions for how mechanisms can sometimes be ‘woken up’, and 3) reflect more generally on what the dormant/awake mechanisms distinction implies for existing observational and experimental methodologies in social science.


Donal Khosrowi, Institut für Philosophie, Leibniz Universität Hannover


Institut für Philosophie


17. December 2019
16:15 o'clock - 18:00 o'clock


Institut für Philosophie
Building: 1146
Room: 1146.003.B313
Im Moore 21
30167 Hannover
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