The role of the environment in computational explanations

Jens Harbecke*, Oron Shagrir

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


The mechanistic view of computation contends that computational explanations are mechanistic explanations. Mechanists, however, disagree about the precise role that the environment – or the so-called “contextual level” – plays for computational (mechanistic) explanations. We advance here two claims: (i) Contextual factors essentially determine the computational identity of a computing system (computational externalism); this means that specifying the “intrinsic” mechanism is not sufficient to fix the computational identity of the system. (ii) It is not necessary to specify the causal-mechanistic interaction between the system and its context in order to offer a complete and adequate computational explanation. While the first claim has been discussed before, the second has been practically ignored. After supporting these claims, we discuss the implications of our contextualist view for the mechanistic view of computational explanation. Our aim is to show that some versions of the mechanistic view are consistent with the contextualist view, whilst others are not.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number37
JournalEuropean Journal for Philosophy of Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, Springer Nature B.V.


  • Computational explanation
  • Computational externalism
  • Computational level
  • Mechanistic account of computation
  • Mechanistic account of explanation


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