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Theor Med Bioeth. 2017 Feb;38(1):41-59. doi: 10.1007/s11017-016-9377-5.

The causal explanatory functions of medical diagnoses.

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Department of Politics, Philosophy, and Religion, Lancaster University, Lancaster, LA1 4YL, UK.


Diagnoses in medicine are often taken to serve as explanations of patients' symptoms and signs. This article examines how they do so. I begin by arguing that although some instances of diagnostic explanation can be formulated as covering law arguments, they are explanatory neither in virtue of their argumentative structures nor in virtue of general regularities between diagnoses and clinical presentations. I then consider the theory that medical diagnoses explain symptoms and signs by identifying their actual causes in particular cases. While I take this to be largely correct, I argue that for a diagnosis to function as a satisfactory causal explanation of a patient's symptoms and signs, it also needs to be supplemented by understanding the mechanisms by which the identified cause produces the symptoms and signs. This mechanistic understanding comes not from the diagnosis itself, but rather from the theoretical framework within which the physician operates.


Causation; Diagnosis; Explanation; Mechanisms

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