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Explanation and Laws

Edited by Markus Schrenk (Westfälische Wilhelms Universität, Münster)
Assistant editor: Florian Boge (University of Cologne, University of Cologne)
About this topic
Summary A straightforward way to see the connection between laws of nature and explanation is to look at the best known (if today by and large rejected) theory of (scientific) explanation: Hempel and Oppenheim's DN account of explanation where "DN" stands for "deductive-nomological". The deductive part is that the statement that describes the phenomenon the occurrence of which is to be explained (called the "explanandum") should follow logically from those true statements that, together, form the explanation (the explanans). Amongst those latter sentences must be at least one law statement (this is the nomological part; from Greek, nomos=law). Thus, we might explain that this bird is black (the explanandum) by pointing out the fact that it is a raven and quoting the law that ravens are black (the two latter items form the explanans).
Key works Hempel and Oppenheim's DN account of explanation is in Hempel & Oppenheim 1948. Further reading and latest developments are in Bird 1999 and Strevens 2008.
Introductions Psillos 2002
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  1. Peter Achinstein (1971). Law and Explanation: An Essay in the Philosophy of Science. London,Oxford University Press.
  2. Alexander Bird (1999). Explanation and Laws. Synthese 120 (1):1--18.
    In this paper I examine two aspects of Hempel’s covering-law models of explanation. These are (i) nomic subsumption and (ii) explication by models. Nomic subsumption is the idea that to explain a fact is to show how it falls under some appropriate law. This conception of explanation Hempel explicates using a pair of models, where, in this context, a model is a template or pattern such that if something fits it, then that thing is an explanation. A range of well-known (...)
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  3. Darren Bradley (2013). Functionalism and The Independence Problems. Noûs 47 (1):n/a-n/a.
    The intimacy problems for functionalism stem from the worry that if functional properties are defined in terms of their causes and effects then such functional properties seem to be too intimately connected to these purported causes and effects. I distinguish three different ways the intimacy problems can be filled out – in terms of necessary connections, analytic connections and vacuous explanations. I argue that none of these present serious problems. Instead, they bring out some important and over-looked features of functionalism.
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  4. Nancy Cartwright (1980). The Truth Doesn't Explain Much. American Philosophical Quarterly 17 (2):159 - 163.
  5. William H. Dray (1979). Laws and Explanation in History. Greenwood Press.
  6. Evan Fales (1980). Uniqueness and Historical Laws. Philosophy of Science 47 (2):260-276.
    This paper presents an argument for the claim that historical events are unique in a nontrivial sense which entails the inapplicability of the Hempelian D-N model to historical explanations. Some previous criticisms of Hempel are shown to be general criticisms of the D-N model which can be outflanked in cases where a reduction to fundamental laws is available. I then survey grounds for denying that explanations by reasons can be effectively reduced to causal explanations, and for rejecting methodological individualism. I (...)
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  7. Tyler Hildebrand (2014). Can Bare Dispositions Explain Categorical Regularities? Philosophical Studies 167 (3):569-584.
    One of the traditional desiderata for a metaphysical theory of laws of nature is that it be able to explain natural regularities. Some philosophers have postulated governing laws to fill this explanatory role. Recently, however, many have attempted to explain natural regularities without appealing to governing laws. Suppose that some fundamental properties are bare dispositions. In virtue of their dispositional nature, these properties must be (or are likely to be) distributed in regular patterns. Thus it would appear that an ontology (...)
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  8. Tyler Hildebrand (2013). Can Primitive Laws Explain? Philosophers' Imprint 13 (15):1-15.
    One reason to posit governing laws is to explain the uniformity of nature. Explanatory power can be purchased by accepting new primitives, and scientists invoke laws in their explanations without providing any supporting metaphysics. For these reasons, one might suspect that we can treat laws as wholly unanalyzable primitives. (John Carroll’s *Laws of Nature* (1994) and Tim Maudlin’s *The Metaphysics Within Physics* (2007) offer recent defenses of primitivism about laws.) Whatever defects primitive laws might have, explanatory weakness should not be (...)
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  9. C. Hitchcock (1999). Contrastive Explanation and the Demons of Determinism. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 50 (4):585-612.
    It it tempting to think that if an outcome had some probability of not occurring, then we cannot explain why that outcome in fact occurred. Despite this intuition, most philosophers of science have come to admit the possibility of indeterministic explanation. Yet some of them continue to hold that if an outcome was not determined, it cannot be explained why that outcome rather than some other occurred. I argue that this is an untenable compromise: if indeterministic explanation is possible, then (...)
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  10. Marc Lange (2013). Grounding, Scientific Explanation, and Humean Laws. Philosophical Studies 164 (1):255-261.
    It has often been argued that Humean accounts of natural law cannot account for the role played by laws in scientific explanations. Loewer (Philosophical Studies 2012) has offered a new reply to this argument on behalf of Humean accounts—a reply that distinguishes between grounding (which Loewer portrays as underwriting a kind of metaphysical explanation) and scientific explanation. I will argue that Loewer’s reply fails because it cannot accommodate the relation between metaphysical and scientific explanation. This relation also resolves a puzzle (...)
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  11. Marc Lange (2000). Natural Laws in Scientific Practice. Oxford University Press.
    It is often presumed that the laws of nature have special significance for scientific reasoning. But the laws' distinctive roles have proven notoriously difficult to identify--leading some philosophers to question if they hold such roles at all. This study offers original accounts of the roles that natural laws play in connection with counterfactual conditionals, inductive projections, and scientific explanations, and of what the laws must be in order for them to be capable of playing these roles. Particular attention is given (...)
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  12. Catherine Legg (1999). Real Law in Charles Peirce's Pragmaticism. In Howard Sankey (ed.), Causation and Laws of Nature. Kluwer. 125--142.
    How scholastic realism met the scientific method.
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  13. Bert Leuridan (2010). Can Mechanisms Really Replace Laws of Nature? Philosophy of Science 77 (3):317-340.
    Today, mechanisms and mechanistic explanation are very popular in philosophy of science and are deemed a welcome alternative to laws of nature and deductive‐nomological explanation. Starting from Mitchell's pragmatic notion of laws, I cast doubt on their status as a genuine alternative. I argue that (1) all complex‐systems mechanisms ontologically must rely on stable regularities, while (2) the reverse need not hold. Analogously, (3) models of mechanisms must incorporate pragmatic laws, while (4) such laws themselves need not always refer to (...)
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  14. Peter Mittelstaedt (forthcoming). Explanation of Physical Phenomena by Laws of Nature. Epistemologia.
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  15. Joel Press (2009). Physical Explanations and Biological Explanations, Empirical Laws and a Priori Laws. Biology and Philosophy 24 (3):359-374.
    Philosophers intent upon characterizing the difference between physics and biology often seize upon the purported fact that physical explanations conform more closely to the covering law model than biological explanations. Central to this purported difference is the role of laws of nature in the explanations of these two sciences. However, I argue that, although certain important differences between physics and biology can be highlighted by differences between physical and biological explanations, these differences are not differences in the degree to which (...)
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  16. Stathos Psillos, Defending Deductive Nomology.
    In recent years philosophy of science has seen a resurgence of interest in metaphysical issues, especially those concerning laws, causation,and explanation. Although this book takes only the latter two words for its title, it is also about laws of nature. It is divided into three sections: the first is on causation, the second is on laws, and the third is on explanation: this is entirely appropriate because the debates about them are closely related. Ever since Hume argued that causation is (...)
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  17. Brendan Shea (2013). Two Concepts of Law of Nature. Prolegomena 12 (2):413-442.
    I argue that there are at least two concepts of law of nature worthy of philosophical interest: strong law and weak law. Strong laws are the laws investigated by fundamental physics, while weak laws feature prominently in the “special sciences” and in a variety of non-scientific contexts. In the first section, I clarify my methodology, which has to do with arguing about concepts. In the next section, I offer a detailed description of strong laws, which I claim satisfy four criteria: (...)
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  18. Darrell R. Shepard (1975). Laws of Nature and Explanation. Teaching Philosophy 1 (2):182-183.
  19. Brian Skyrms (1966). Nomological Necessity and the Paradoxes of Confirmation. Philosophy of Science 33 (3):230-249.
    Some of the concerns which motivate attempts to provide a philosophical reduction of nomological necessity are briefly introduced in I. In II, Hempel's treatment of the paradoxes is contrasted with a position which holds that nomological necessity is a pragmatic dimension of laws of nature, and that this pragmatic dimension is of such a type that it prevents laws of nature from contraposing. Such a position is, however, untenable unless (i) the sense of 'pragmatics' at issue is specified, and the (...)
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  20. Michael Strevens (2012). The Explanatory Role of Irreducible Properties. Noûs 46 (4):754-780.
    I aim to reconcile two apparently conflicting theses: (a) Everything that can be explained, can be explained in purely physical terms, that is, using the machinery of fundamental physics, and (b) some properties that play an explanatory role in the higher level sciences are irreducible in the strong sense that they are physically undefinable: their nature cannot be described using the vocabulary of physics. I investigate the contribution that physically undefinable properties typically make to explanations in the high-level sciences, and (...)
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  21. Michael Strevens (2008). Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation. Harvard University Press.
    Approaches to explanation -- Causal and explanatory relevance -- The kairetic account of /D making -- The kairetic account of explanation -- Extending the kairetic account -- Event explanation and causal claims -- Regularity explanation -- Abstraction in regularity explanation -- Approaches to probabilistic explanation -- Kairetic explanation of frequencies -- Kairetic explanation of single outcomes -- Looking outward -- Looking inward.
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  22. Richard Swinburne (1990). The Limits of Explanation. Philosophy 27 (Supplement):177 - 193.
    Scientific explanation in terms of laws and initial conditions (or better, in terms of objects with powers and liabilities) is contrasted with personal explanation in terms of agents with powers and purposes. In each case the factors involved in explanation may themselves be explained, and infinite regress of explanation is logically possible. There can be no absolute explanation of phenomena, which is explanation in terms of the logically necessary; but there can be ultimate explanation which is explanation in terms of (...)
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  23. Brad Weslake, The Problem of Disjunctive Explanations.
    I present a problem for theories of explanation, concerning explanations involving disjunctive properties. The problem is particular acute for the explanatory non-fundamentalist, according to whom non-fundamental scientific explanations are sometimes superior to fundamental physical explanations. I criticise solutions to the problem due to Woodward, Strevens and Sober, and Lewis, and then defend a solution inspired by an account of non-fundamental laws recently defended by Callender and Cohen.
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  24. Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther, Determinism and Total Explanation in the Biological and Behavioral Sciences. Encyclopedia of Life Sciences.
    Should we think of our universe as law-governed and “clockwork”-like or as disorderly and “soup”-like? Alternatively, should we consciously and intentionally synthesize these two extreme pictures? More concretely, how deterministic are the postulated causes and how rigid are the modeled properties of the best statistical methodologies used in the biological and behavioral sciences? The charge of this entry is to explore thinking about causation in the temporal evolution of biological and behavioral systems. Regression analysis and path analysis are simply explicated (...)
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  25. Jim Woodward (2001). Law and Explanation in Biology: Invariance is the Kind of Stability That Matters. Philosophy of Science 68 (1):1-20.
    This paper develops an account of explanation in biology which does not involve appeal to laws of nature, at least as traditionally conceived. Explanatory generalizations in biology must satisfy a requirement that I call invariance, but need not satisfy most of the other standard criteria for lawfulness. Once this point is recognized, there is little motivation for regarding such generalizations as laws of nature. Some of the differences between invariance and the related notions of stability and resiliency, due respectively to (...)
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