Explanation and Laws

Edited by Markus Schrenk (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf)
Assistant editor: Florian J. Boge (Bergische Universität Wuppertal, Aachen University of Technology)
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. added 2018-12-03
    Review: Achinstein's Law and Explanation. [REVIEW]James H. Fetzer - 1975 - Philosophy of Science 42 (3):320 - 333.
  2. added 2018-08-06
    ¿Es El Realista Científico Un Realista de Leyes Naturales?Edgar Eduardo Rojas Duran - 2018 - Endoxa 41:277.
    In this paper, I argue that if one is already an advocate of scientific realism, then one would be also a realist about laws of nature. To show this, I argue that only scientific realists would accept that non-accidental regularities require explanation and that their genuine explanation is given by laws of nature. Then, from this conclusion, it seems that scientific realists have reason to believe that there are laws of nature in an objective sense. If this is correct, the (...)
  3. added 2018-07-12
    Humean Laws, Explanatory Circularity, and the Aim of Scientific Explanation.Chris Dorst - forthcoming - Philosophical Studies:1-23.
    One of the main challenges confronting Humean accounts of natural law is that Humean laws appear to be unable to play the explanatory role of laws in scientific practice. The worry is roughly that if the laws are just regularities in the particular matters of fact (as the Humean would have it), then they cannot also explain the particular matters of fact, on pain of circularity. Loewer (2012) has defended Humeanism, arguing that this worry only arises if we fail to (...)
  4. added 2018-03-27
    Levels of Reasons Why and Answers to Why Questions.Insa Lawler - 2019 - Philosophy of Science 86 (1):168-177.
    According to Skow (2016, 2017), correct answers to why-questions only cite causes or grounds, but not non-accidental regularities. Accounts that cite non-accidental regularities typically confuse second-level reasons with first-level reasons. Only causes and grounds are first-level reasons why. Non-accidental regularities are second-level reasons why. I first show that Skow's arguments for the accusation of confusion depend on the independent thesis that only citations of first-level reasons why are (parts of) answers to why-questions. Then, I argue that this thesis is false. (...)
  5. added 2018-02-16
    Explanation, Causation and Laws.Dorothy Edgington - 1990 - Critica 22 (66):55-73.
  6. added 2017-12-12
    Laws of Nature, Explanation, and Semantic Circularity.Shumener Erica - 2017 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science:axx020.
    Humeans and anti-Humeans agree that laws of nature should explain scientifically particular matters of fact. One objection to Humean accounts of laws contends that Humean laws cannot explain particular matters of fact because their explanations are harmfully circular. This article distinguishes between metaphysical and semantic characterizations of the circularity and argues for a new semantic version of the circularity objection. The new formulation suggests that Humean explanations are harmfully circular because the content of the sentences being explained is part of (...)
  7. added 2017-10-16
    Explanation, Laws, and Causation.Wei Wang - 2017 - Routledge.
    Scientific explanation, laws of nature and causation are crucial and frontier issues in the philosophy of science. This book studies the complex relationship between the three concepts, aiming to achieve a holistic synthesis about explanation–laws–causation. By reviewing Hempel's Scientific Explanation models and Salmon's three conceptions – the epistemic, modal and ontic conception – the book suggests that laws are essential to explanation and our understanding of laws will help solve the problems of the latter. Concerning the nature of laws, this (...)
  8. added 2017-08-30
    Comments on Forge.Adrian Heathcote - 1996 - In P. Riggs (ed.), Natural Kinds, Laws of Nature and Scientific Methodology. Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp. 229--233.
    In his essay ‘Laws and States in Quantum Mechanics’, John Forge presents a case for considering laws of nature to be privileged sets of states, trajectories in the quantum mechanical analogue of phase space. Having presented an argument to show that states have to be taken with full ontological seriousness, Forge then uses those states to undergird his favourite account of laws and explanation — called the Instance View. On this view laws are a special sort of pattern, a certain (...)
  9. added 2017-07-06
    Explanation and Necessity.Albert Hofstadter - 1950 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 11 (3):339-347.
  10. added 2017-04-28
    Explanations of Exceptions in Biology: Corrective Asymmetry Versus Autonomy.Jani Raerinne - 2017 - Synthese 194 (12):5073-5092.
    It is often argued that biological generalizations have a distinctive and special status by comparison with the generalizations of other natural sciences, such as that biological generalizations are riddled with exceptions defying systematic and simple treatment. This special status of biology is used as a premise in arguments that posit a deprived explanatory, nomological, or methodological status in the biological sciences. I will discuss the traditional and still almost universally held idea that the biological sciences cannot deal with exceptions and (...)
  11. added 2017-04-28
    Idealized Laws and Explanatory Models.José Luis Rolleri - 2013 - Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy 32 (2):5-27.
  12. added 2017-04-28
    Why Do Spatiotemporally Restricted Regularities Explain in the Social Sciences?A. Rosenberg - 2012 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 63 (1):1-26.
    Employing a well-known local regularity from macroeconomics, the Phillips curve, I examine Woodward’s ([2000], [2003]) account of the explanatory power of such historically restricted generalizations and the mathematical models with which they are sometimes associated. The article seeks to show that, pace Woodward, to be explanatory such generalizations need to be underwritten by more fundamental ones, and that rational choice theory would not avail in this case to provide the required underwriting. Examining how such explanatory restricted regularities are underwritten in (...)
  13. added 2017-04-28
    Causal Laws, Dispositional Properties and Causal Explanations.Ullin T. Place - 1987 - Synthesis Philosophica 2:149-160.
  14. added 2017-03-29
    6.” There Sweep Great General Principles Which All the Laws Seem to Follow.Marc Lange - 2012 - Oxford Studies in Metaphysics 7:154.
  15. added 2017-03-29
    Armstrong and Dretske on the Explanatory Power of Regularities.Marc Lange - 1992 - Analysis 52 (3):154 - 159.
  16. added 2017-02-28
    ‘Natures’ and ‘Laws’: The Making of the Concept of Law of Nature – Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon.Yael Kedar & Giora Hon - 2017 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 61:21-31.
  17. added 2017-02-28
    The Explanatory Virtues of Probabilistic Causal Laws.Henrik Hallsten - 2005 - In Jan Faye, Paul Needham, Uwe Scheffler & Max Urchs (eds.), Nature's Principles. Springer. pp. 137--150.
  18. added 2017-02-13
    Phenomenological Laws and Their Application to Scientific Epistemic Explanation Problems.Erik Weber - 1990 - Logique Et Analyse 129 (29):175-189.
  19. added 2017-02-09
    Lange, Marc. Natural Laws in Scientific Practice.Kent Staley - 2002 - Review of Metaphysics 56 (2):435-436.
  20. added 2017-01-23
    Idealizations and Concretizations in Laws and Explanations in Physics.Igor Hanzel - 2008 - Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 39 (2):273-301.
    The paper tries to provide an alternative to Hempel’s approach to scientific laws and scientific explanation as given in his D-N model. It starts with a brief exposition of the main characteristics of Hempel’s approach to deductive explanations based on universal scientific laws and analyzes the problems and paradoxes inherent in this approach. By way of solution, it analyzes the scientific laws and explanations in classical mechanics and then reconstructs the corresponding models of explanation, as well as the types of (...)
  21. added 2017-01-23
    Natural Laws in Scientific Practice by Marc Lange.John W. Carroll - 2005 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (1):240-245.
  22. added 2017-01-23
    Measures, Explanations and the Past: Should ‘Special’ Initial Conditions Be Explained?Craig Callender - 2004 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 55 (2):195-217.
    For the generalizations of thermodynamics to obtain, it appears that a very ‘special’ initial condition of the universe is required. Is this initial condition itself in need of explanation? I argue that it is not. In so doing, I offer a framework in which to think about ‘special’ initial conditions in all areas of science, though I concentrate on the case of thermodynamics. I urge the view that it is not always a serious mark against a theory that it must (...)
  23. added 2017-01-23
    Marc Lange: Natural Laws in Scientific Practice.Daniel Heard - 2003 - Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 12 (1):53-59.
  24. added 2017-01-23
    Nomic Dependence and Causation.F. John Clendinnen - 1992 - Philosophy of Science 59 (3):341-360.
    The paper proposes an explication of causation in terms of laws and their explanatory systematization. A basic notion is "nomic dependence". The definition given by David Lewis is suitable for deterministic laws, and a general definition drawing on Wesley Salmon's statistical-relevance model of explanation is proposed. A test is offered for establishing that one chain of nomically dependent events is more direct than another that ends with the same event by considering the relationship between the two chains when an explanation (...)
  25. added 2017-01-23
    Deskriptions- Und Interpretationsprobleme Beim Psychologischen Erklären.Hans-Georg Bosshardt - 1984 - Analyse & Kritik 6 (2):160-189.
    In this paper, the descriptive information contained in empirical laws is contrasted with common-sense descriptions of situations and behavior. According to the Hempel-Oppenheim-Schema, explanation is, essentially conceived as a matter of deductive reasoning in which the fact to be explained is subsumed under one empirically valid generalizations or laws. However, this kind of explanation is necessarily based on intuitive processes of diagnosis and interpretation. It is argued that these intuitive processes enable the scientist to formulate descriptive sentences which form the (...)
  26. added 2017-01-23
    The Reality of Causes in a World of Instrumental Laws.Nancy Cartwright - 1980 - PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1980:38 - 48.
    Philosophers of science nowadays are inclined to believe in physical laws, but generally, like Hume and Russell, to reject causes. This paper urges the reverse. Explanatory practice in physics argues that we must take literally the causal stories that our theories provide, but the fundamental laws and equations that are essential to modern science are merely instrumental.
  27. added 2016-12-29
    Mechanisms, Laws, and Regularities.Holly Andersen - 2011 - Philosophy of Science 78 (2):325-331.
    Leuridan (2010) argued that mechanisms cannot provide a genuine alternative to laws of nature as a model of explanation in the sciences, and advocates Mitchell’s (1997) pragmatic account of laws. I first demonstrate that Leuridan gets the order of priority wrong between mechanisms, regularity, and laws, and then make some clarifying remarks about how laws and mechanisms relate to regularities. Mechanisms are not an explanatory alternative to regularities; they are an alternative to laws. The existence of stable regularities in nature (...)
  28. added 2016-12-29
    Problem : Do Scientific Laws Give a True Image of Reality?Jerzy A. Wojciechowski - 1963 - Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 37:206.
  29. added 2016-11-29
    On the Nature of Scientific Law and Scientific Explanation.Thomas J. McCormack - 1900 - The Monist 10 (4):549-572.
  30. added 2016-10-20
    Structural Levels in the Scientist's World.Harold Chapman Brown - 1916 - Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 13 (13):337-345.
  31. added 2016-08-16
    What Would Hume Say? Regularities, Laws, and Mechanisms.Holly Andersen - 2017 - In Phyllis Ilari & Stuart Glennan (eds.), Handbook of Mechanisms and Mechanistic Philosophy. Routledge. pp. 157-168.
    This chapter examines the relationship between laws and mechanisms as approaches to characterising generalizations and explanations in science. I give an overview of recent historical discussions where laws failed to satisfy stringent logical criteria, opening the way for mechanisms to be investigated as a way to explain regularities in nature. This followed by a critical discussion of contemporary debates about the role of laws versus mechanisms in describing versus explaining regularities. I conclude by offering new arguments for two roles for (...)
  32. added 2016-05-17
    Explanatory Asymmetries: Laws of Nature Rehabilitated.Lina Jansson - 2015 - Journal of Philosophy 112 (11):577-599.
    The problem of explanatory non-symmetries provides the strongest reason to abandon the view that laws can figure in explanations without causal underpinnings. I argue that this problem can be overcome. The solution that I propose starts from noticing the importance of conditions of application when laws do explanatory work, and I go on to develop a notion of nomological dependence that can tackle the non-symmetry problem. The strategy is to show how a strong notion of counterfactual dependence as guaranteed by (...)
  33. added 2016-04-02
    Idealizacyjny Status Praw Naukowych a Ich Zastosowanie W Praktyce Badawczej Historyków.Krzysztof Brzechczyn - 2013 - Ruch Filozoficzny 70 (3).
    The aid of this paper is to paraphrase, using the terminological framework of the idealisational theory of science, the issue of the accuracy of explanation. Chris Lorenz, describing the “theoretical historical debate” on the status of scientific laws, mentioned the standpoint of Nancy Cartwright. According to him, this post-positivistic approach introduced new perspectives on understanding lawfulness. The purpose of this paper is to present assumptions of another post-positivistic approach to science, namely an idealizational theory of science and to paraphrase in (...)
  34. added 2016-03-01
    Newton’s “Satis Est”: A New Explanatory Role for Laws.Lina Jansson - 2013 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44 (4):553-562.
    In this paper I argue that Newton’s stance on explanation in physics was enabled by his overall methodology and that it neither committed him to embrace action at a distance nor to set aside philosophical and metaphysical questions. Rather his methodology allowed him to embrace a non-causal, yet non-inferior, kind of explanation. I suggest that Newton holds that the theory developed in the Principia provides a genuine explanation, namely a law-based one, but that we also lack something explanatory, namely a (...)
  35. added 2016-02-01
    Explanation in the Social Sciences: Singular Explanation and the Social Sciences*: David-Hillel Ruben.David-Hillel Ruben - 1990 - Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 27:95-117.
    Are explanations in the social sciences fundamentally different from explanations in the natural sciences? Many philosophers think that they are, and I call such philosophers ‘difference theorists’. Many difference theorists locate that difference in the alleged fact that only in the natural sciences does explanation essentially include laws.
  36. added 2015-07-08
    Explaining Laws of Nature: A Metaphysical Investigation Into the Natural Principles Governing the Universe.Siegfried Jaag - unknown
  37. added 2015-06-17
    Scientific Explanation by Covering Laws.Frank Canon Williams - 1969 - Dissertation, Duke University
  38. added 2015-06-09
    Deductive Explanation of Scientific Laws.Raimo Tuomela - 1972 - Journal of Philosophical Logic 1 (3/4):369 - 392.
  39. added 2015-06-09
    Laws, Coincidences, Counterfactuals and Counter-Identicals.R. A. Sharpe - 1971 - Mind 80 (320):572-582.
  40. added 2015-05-18
    Why Do the Laws Explain Why?Marc Lange - 2009 - In Toby Handfield (ed.), Dispositions and Causes. Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press ;.
  41. added 2015-05-18
    Cartwright on Fundamentalism.Steve Clarke - 1998 - Theoria 45 (91):53-65.
  42. added 2015-05-18
    Are Statistical Hypotheses Covering Laws?Isaac Levi - 1969 - Synthese 20 (3):297 - 307.
  43. added 2015-05-05
    Marc Lange, Natural Laws in Scientific Practice. [REVIEW]L. Jaeger - 2003 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 17 (3):313-314.
  44. added 2015-04-26
    Scientific Laws and Scientific Explanations: A Differentiated Typology.Igor Hanzel - 2008 - Organon F: Medzinárodný Časopis Pre Analytickú Filozofiu 15 (3):323-344.
    The paper tries to provide an alternative to C. G. Hempel’s approach to scientific laws and scientific explanation as given in his D-N model. It starts with a brief exposition of the main characteristics of Hempel’s approach to deductive explanations based on universal scientific laws and analyzes the problems and paradoxes inherent in this approach. By way of solution, it analyzes the scientific laws and explanations in classical mechanics and then reconstructs the corresponding models of explanation, as well as the (...)
  45. added 2015-04-26
    Nancy Cartwright and Leszek Nowak on Scientific Laws and Scientific Explanation.Igor Hanzel - 2005 - In Jan Faye, Paul Needham, Uwe Scheffler & Max Urchs (eds.), Nature's Principles. Springer. pp. 103--135.
  46. added 2015-04-26
    Natural Laws in Scientific Practice. By Marc Lange. [REVIEW]C. Hoeckley - 2003 - The European Legacy 8 (2):237-237.
  47. added 2015-04-26
    Nancy Cartwright on Scientific Laws and Scientific Explanation.I. Hanzel - 1999 - Filozofia 54 (10):717-730.
  48. added 2015-04-26
    Do Statistical Laws Have Explanatory Efficacy?Samuel E. Gluck - 1955 - Philosophy of Science 22 (1):34-38.
    In "Studies In The Logic Of Explanation" (Philosophy of Science, XV, 1948) Hempel and Oppenheim analyze the basic pattern of scientific explanation. One of the difficult problems which they acknowledge is "whether and how the analysis of explanation can be extended from the case where all general ex- planatory principles invoked are of a strictly universal or 'deterministic' form to the case where explanatory reference is made to statistical hypotheses." It is hoped that the remarks which follow may contribute a (...)
  49. added 2015-04-20
    Marc Lange: Natural Laws in Scientific Practice. [REVIEW]Joshua Alexander - 2004 - Philosophy of Science 71 (2):222-224.
    What is a law of nature? Traditionally, philosophical discussion of this question has been dominated by two prominent alternatives; David Lewis’s best-systems analysis, according to which a law is a regularity that serves as a theorem in our best axiomatization of the facts about the world, and the Dretske-Armstrong-Tooley analysis, which incorporates universals to distinguish laws from mere accidental generalizations. Marc Lange’s first book presents a provocative alternative to this tradition, providing a novel treatment of natural laws that should be (...)
  50. added 2015-04-20
    "How Does It Work" Versus "What Are the Laws?": Two Conceptions of Psychological Explanation.Robert C. Cummins - 2000 - In F. Keil & Robert A. Wilson (eds.), Explanation and Cognition, 117-145. MIT Press.
    In the beginning, there was the DN (Deductive Nomological) model of explanation, articulated by Hempel and Oppenheim (1948). According to DN, scientific explanation is subsumption under natural law. Individual events are explained by deducing them from laws together with initial conditions (or boundary conditions), and laws are explained by deriving them from other more fundamental laws, as, for example, the simple pendulum law is derived from Newton's laws of motion.
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