Foundations of Human Mechanistic Reasoning: The structure of asking 'How?'


This project aims for a better grasp 'mechanisms'. The concept of mechanisms is of historical and philosophical significance, promising to illuminate how humans reason with causation.

When we consider, say, that water quenches thirst, we do not calculate using statistics; rather, we imagine some bodily mechanism producing that effect. But the dominant approach to causal reasoning today --that of 'causal networks'-- unsuitably understands causation as a form of statistical inference. Thankfully, a new wave of humanities research on mechanisms has the potential, developed in this project, to surpass causal networks' picture of causal reasoning.

We posit mechanisms every day, from mastering cycling to drafting scientifically-informed policy, but we lack a precise idea of just what mechanisms are. This first task of the project is therefore to specify the axioms of mechanistic reasoning. Harnessing a methodology of model-construction, I articulate what logical patterns are common to our reasoning with mechanisms.

The use of formal techniques raises the question: Just how applicable are the proposed models of mechanistic reasoning to actual human thought? So the second task of the project is to pinpoint how realistically the proposed models of mechanistic reasoning represent actual, human causal reasoning. I achieve this goal through a comparative study with causal networks.

By setting our causal reasoning with mechanisms on firmer foundations, the project elucidates the common principles of mechanistic thought, makes step towards greater scientific unity --and ultimately, furnishes a sharper view of just what kind of reasoners we humans are.


Project number


Main applicant

Prof. dr. S.J.L. Smets

Affiliated with

Universiteit van Amsterdam, Faculteit der Natuurwetenschappen, Wiskunde en Informatica, Institute for Logic, Language and Computation (ILLC)

Team members

D.M. McHugh MSc


01/10/2018 to 31/08/2022