The role of the environment in computational explanations

Jens Harbecke*, Oron Shagrir

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 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

Funding Information:
This work has been supported by the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development (G-1257-116.4/2014; recipients: Jens Harbecke, Vera Hoffmann-Kolss, and Oron Shagrir). We would like to thank Dimitri Coelho Mollo, Joseph Dewhurst, Lotem Elber-Dorozko, Ori Hacohen, Shahar Hechtlinger, Vera Hoffmann-Kolss, David Kaplan, Jan Philipp Köster, Arnon Levy, Gualtiero Piccinini, Bill Bechtel and Carlos Zednik for valuable feedback on our paper during several meetings during the course of the GIF project 'Causation and Computation in Cognitive Neuroscience'. We would also like to thank Zehava Cohen for her help in developing the illustrations.

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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