Explanation by Constraint

January 19, 2021

This event is online


  • European Research Council

All speakers:

Ohio State University
Lund University
King's College London
University of California, Irvine


University of Birmingham

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2.30-3.20pm: Eleanor Knox (King’s College, London)
“On Constraints, Context, and Spatiotemporal Explanation”

10-min break

3.30-4.20pm: Sara Green (University of Copenhagen)
“Constraint-based Explanation in Biology”

20-min break

4.40-5.30pm: Lauren Ross (University of California, Irvine)
“The Explanatory Nature of Constraints”

10-min break

5.40-6.30pm: Michael Bertrand (Ohio State University)
“Metaphysical Explanation by Constraint”


Sara Green (University of Copenhagen)
“Constraint-based Explanation in Biology”

Knowledge about physical constraints plays important roles in reasoning in biology but is rarely explicitly addressed by philosophers of biology. Biologists are not only interested in clarifying “how actually” a given function is produced by a given mechanism. Sometimes the aim is to understand why certain general patterns in anatomical structures or physiological strategies are observed in nature, despite what may seem like endless possibilities for biological diversity. This involves a delineation of “possibility spaces” for biological variation. This paper outlines how analysis on biological possibility-spaces is informed by reasoning about physical constraints and size-dependency of dominant forces. Whereas such examples have been highlighted by theoretical biologists for decades, I show how research on size-dependent constraints are of continued importance in studies of possible evolutionary trajectories, morphological patterning, as well as for what systems and synthetic biologists call design principles.

Lauren Ross (University of California, Irvine)
“The explanatory nature of constraints”

This talk provides an analysis of explanatory constraints and their role in scientific explanation. This analysis clarifies main characteristics of explanatory constraints, ways in which they differ from “standard” explanatory factors, and the unique roles they play in scientific explanation. While current philosophical work tends to appreciate two main types of explanatory constraints, this paper suggests a new taxonomy: law-based constraints, mathematical constraints, and causal constraints. This classification helps capture unique features of distinct constraint types, the different roles they play in explanation, and it includes causal constraints, which are often overlooked in this literature.

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January 19, 2021, 5:30pm BST

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