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Disambiguating “Mechanisms” in Pharmacy: Lessons from Mechanist Philosophy of Science

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020;17(6):1833 DOI 10.3390/ijerph17061833


Journal Homepage

Journal Title: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

ISSN: 1661-7827 (Print); 1660-4601 (Online)

Publisher: MDPI AG

LCC Subject Category: Medicine

Country of publisher: Switzerland

Language of fulltext: English

Full-text formats available: PDF, HTML, ePUB, XML



Ahmad Yaman Abdin (Division of Bioorganic Chemistry, School of Pharmacy, Saarland University, D-66123 Saarbruecken, Germany)

Claus Jacob (Division of Bioorganic Chemistry, School of Pharmacy, Saarland University, D-66123 Saarbruecken, Germany)

Lena Kästner (Department of Philosophy, Saarland University, D-66123 Saarbruecken, Germany)


Blind peer review

Editorial Board

Instructions for authors

Time From Submission to Publication: 11 weeks


Abstract | Full Text

Talk of mechanisms is ubiquitous in the natural sciences. Interdisciplinary fields such as biochemistry and pharmacy frequently discuss mechanisms with the assistance of diagrams. Such diagrams usually depict entities as structures or boxes and activities or interactions as arrows. While some of these arrows may indicate causal or componential relations, others may represent temporal or operational orders. Importantly, what kind of relation an arrow represents may not only vary with context but also be underdetermined by empirical data. In this manuscript, we investigate how an analysis of pharmacological mechanisms in terms of producing and underlying mechanisms—as discussed in the contemporary philosophy of science—may shed light on these issues. Specifically, we shall argue that while pharmacokinetic mechanisms usually describe causal chains of production, pharmacodynamics tends to focus on mechanisms of action underlying the in vivo effects of a drug. Considering the action of thyroid gland hormones in the human body as a case study, we further demonstrate that pharmacodynamic schemes tend to incorporate entities and interactions on multiple levels. Yet, traditional pharmacodynamic schemes are sketched “flat”, i.e., non-hierarchically. We suggest that transforming flat pharmacodynamic schemes into mechanistic multi-level representations may assist in disentangling the different kinds of mechanisms and relations depicted by arrows in flat schemes. The resulting Baumkuchen model provides a powerful and practical alternative to traditional flat schemes, as it explicates the relevant mechanisms and relations more clearly. On a more general note, our discussion demonstrates how pharmacology and related disciplines may benefit from applying concepts from the new mechanist philosophy to guide the interpretation of scientific diagrams.