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Scientific Explanation Must Every ScientificEssay

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[. . .] Once philosophers started to see scientific knowledge as the only real knowledge, and Frege's new logic - which promised to become the new scientific language - became more widely known, there were few remaining philosophical tasks; foremost was to describe precisely what science is, what scientists do, and what the underlying logic of science is. The project went as follows: enumerate the various scientific tasks, and then ascertain that there is a clear "conceptual analysis" of each one. What are the tasks of science? Among the things that scientists, qua scientists, do are make predictions, discover laws of nature, formulate theories, assert probabilities, propose hypotheses, set taxonomies, and offer explanations.

Similar questions can be asked of the term "explanation." Offering a scientific explanation of a phenomenon is a major accomplishment for a scientist or for science. But just what counts as a scientific explanation is a matter of contention. While believing the same set of facts, reasonable people disagree on whether evolution "explains life," given differing conceptions of "explanation."

Immediately proceeding the positivist era, some nineteenth century thinkers including Gustav Kirchnov Ernst Mach, and Auguste Comte (David Hume, 1980) considered explanations as part of the old metaphysics-laden approach to scientific explanation. For them it would have been a significant achievement to show how science could be formulated without referring to explanations at all. Philosophers like Emile Meyerson argued otherwise, and claimed that explanations were an indispensable part of the practice of science. In the end the positivists saw it as one of their major accomplishments that they came up with a non-metaphysical analysis of scientific explanation that was true to their ontological views and consistent with scientific practice. Hempel (Carl G, 1948) is credited with formulating the Deductive- Nomological (D-N) model of explanation. This became the canonical positivist account of metaphysics-free explanation. For Hempel, explanations meet specific criteria, and can be recognized solely by their logical form. Hempel's model of explanation is clear about what counts as a scientific ex-plantation, and is clear about what fails to be an explanation - or when an explanation fails.

It became clear by the 1970s that the positivist model of explanation would not pan out. There were many technical problems: many things that were clearly taken to be scientific explanations did not fit the model, and there were many things that fit the model that were not seen as scientific explanations. As people began to study the D-N model more closely, patches were added to it and alternative models were proposed. A large body of literature grew around the question of what counts as a scientific explanation. Today there are at least four ways of analyzing "explanation" that are taken seriously by many philosophers. We discuss each of these in turn.

Few philosophers claim that in scientific discourse a "result," "observation," or "experiment" is objective and an explanation is subjective. One assumption behind much of the literature in scientific explanation is that whatever explanations turn out to be, they are objective, or at least can be objectively determined.

When we look back to the positivists and other early theorists of scientific explanation we find that their aim was generally to make explanations objective. For example, Hempel's stated conception of explanation did "not require relativization with respect to questioning individuals any more than does the concept of mathematical proof." (Hempel, 1965: 426) The positivists, like us, assume that providing explanations is part of what physical scientists do when they do science. The positivists did not take scientists, qua scientists, to be providing a psychologically subjective pedagogical function. It is rarely (though sometimes) a useful contribution to science to rephrase a known result (though it may often be useful to some scientists). If it was generally useful, it would show that science was not completely objective as it is dependent on the particulars of some scientists (Hempel, 1965)

There is an obvious first objection to the assertion that there is no scientific explanation. The objection can take many forms. But it will generally invoke a common usage of "explanation" and claim that of course people explain mathematics. Many textbooks claim to explain their subject matter, or explain it better than another textbook. Many students and mathematicians have heard explanations of particular pieces of mathematics.

But this objection is predicated on confusion, as it runs together various senses of "explanation." "Explain" is ambiguous and using the wrong sense of "explanation" will lead to philosophical confusion. This confusion frustrated Hempel. In (Hempel, 1963), as a response to an objection by Michael Scriven, Hempel wrote that there can be no deductive model of explanation that covers explaining "to the mechanic in a Yugoslav garage what has gone wrong with a car." Hempel then goes on to point out that this confusion is similar to objecting to some definition of "proof" (in the metamathematical proof-theory sense) because it fails to accommodate how "proof" is used in "90 proof gin."

Science maintains as one of its goals the reduction of the number of entities our theories need to countenance. For example, we unify strong and weak nuclear forces into one theory of nuclear interactions and we reduce the theory of thermodynamics to statistical mechanics. Many scientists see it as a goal to find a Grand Unified Theory, unifying all scientific statements under one account. The continued existence of a number of forces and fundamental types of matter is sometimes seen as an embarrassment to theoretical physics.


On one hand, scientific explanation is based on law of nature. But, on the other hand, each scientific fact about the world is presumably subsumed under some law or is somehow accounted for within some explanatory framework. Certainly all the ordinary facts about the universe are taken to have explanations. And when science discovered facts that could not be subsumed under ordinary accounts of explanation, philosophers invented new models of explanation that subsumed the new facts with the old. Statistical laws and their corresponding models of explanation come readily to mind. Within the domain of some science, in whatever sense we mean "explanation" science proceeds under the assumption that everything falls under one. If we went to a doctor with some particular pain, we would expect that the doctor would tell us that the pain could somehow be accounted for. The doctor may not know what accounts for your pain, he may not be able to offer an explanation, but we would assume he was a quack if he claimed that there simply was no account (Steiner, 1978).

In science, the search for explanations has motivated quite a lot. Everything beyond specimen collecting in science is driven by a need for explanations. Even specimen collecting is often in service of explaining some larger phenomenon or regularity. The things we take to be the major accomplishments of science were explanations. Consider especially those frameworks provided by Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin, Dalton, Faraday, and Einstein. All of them provided scientific explanations of various phenomena.

Some models of scientific explanation have been criticized for offering nothing but a way to repeat the descriptions of scientific phenomenon. Explanations must go beyond such repetition, and that is why philosophers have inserted for example, deduction, causation, or compression in their models of explanation.


C.G. Hempel and Paul Oppenheim. (1948) Studies in the logic of explanation. Philosophy of Science, 15:135-175,.

CG. Hempel.( 1965) Aspects of Scientific Explanation and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Science. Free Press, New York,.

CG. Hempel. (1963). Explanation and prediction by covering laws. In Bernard Baumrin, editor, Philosophy of Science: The Delaware Seminar, pages 107-133, New York,. John Wiley and Sons.

D. Hume.(1980). Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hackett, Indianopolis,. Contains the Posthumous Essays. Edited by Richard H. Popkin.

I. Barrow. (1970). The Usefulness of Mathematical Learning Explained and Demonstrated: Being Mathematical Lectures Read in the Public Schools at the University of Cambridge. Stephen Austin, London, 1734. Translated by John Kirkby. Reprinted by Frank Cass & Co. Ltd. (London,).

J.D. Trout.( 2002). Scientific explanation and the sense of understanding. Philosophy of Science, 69:212-233, June.

M. Steiner.(1978) Mathematical explanation. Philosophical Studies, 34:135-151.

P. Kitcher.( 1981) Mathematical rigor - who needs it? Nous,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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