Explanation and Laws

Edited by Markus Schrenk (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf)
Assistant editor: Florian Boge (University of Cologne, University of Düsseldorf)
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. Law and Explanation: An Essay in the Philosophy of Science.Peter Achinstein - 1971 - London: Oxford University Press.
  2. 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 (...)
  3. What Would Hume Say? Regularities, Laws, and Mechanisms.Holly Andersen - forthcoming - In Phyllis Ilari & Stuart Glennan (eds.), Handbook of Mechanisms and Mechanistic Philosophy.
    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 (...)
  4. 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 (...)
  5. Classifying Contingency in the Social Sciences: Diachronic, Synchronic, and Deterministic Contingency.Clint Ballinger - unknown -
    This article makes three claims concerning the concept of contingency. First, we argue that the word contingency is used in far too many ways to be useful. Its many meanings are detrimental to clarity of discussion and thought in history and the social sciences. We show how there are eight distinct uses of the word and illustrate this with numerous examples from the social sciences and history, highlighting the scope for confusion caused by the many, often contradictory uses of the (...)
  6. Initial Conditions as Exogenous Factors in Spatial Explanation.Clint Ballinger - 2008 - Dissertation, University of Cambridge
    This dissertation shows how initial conditions play a special role in the explanation of contingent and irregular outcomes, including, in the form of geographic context, the special case of uneven development in the social sciences. The dissertation develops a general theory of this role, recognizes its empirical limitations in the social sciences, and considers how it might be applied to the question of uneven development. The primary purpose of the dissertation is to identify and correct theoretical problems in the study (...)
  7. Explanation and Laws.Alexander Bird - 1999 - 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 (...)
  8. Laws and Instantial Statements.Alex Blum - 1970 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 21 (4):371-378.
    In 'The Structure of Science' Nagel contends that a deductive explanation of the occurrence of an individual event must contain at least one instantial statement as a premiss (Nagel, 1961, p. 31). I shall defend a version of his contention.
  9. 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 (...)
  10. Functionalism and The Independence Problems.Darren Bradley - 2013 - Noûs 47 (1):545-557.
    The independence 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 independence 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.
  11. Structural Levels in the Scientist's World.Harold Chapman Brown - 1916 - Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 13 (13):337-345.
  12. 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 (...)
  13. 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 (...)
  14. Natural Laws in Scientific Practice. [REVIEW]John W. Carroll - 2005 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (1):240–245.
    This is a review of Marc Lange's _Natural Laws in Scientific Practice<D>.
  15. Natural Laws in Scientific Practice by Marc Lange.John W. Carroll - 2005 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (1):240-245.
  16. The Truth Doesn't Explain Much.Nancy Cartwright - 1980 - American Philosophical Quarterly 17 (2):159 - 163.
  17. 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.
  18. Cartwright on Fundamentalism.Steve Clarke - 1998 - Theoria 45 (91):53-65.
  19. 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 (...)
  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.
  21. Laws and Explanations in Biology and Chemistry: Philosophical Perspectives and Educational Implications.Zoubeida R. Dagher & Sibel Erduran - 2014 - In Michael R. Matthews (ed.), International Handbook of Research in History, Philosophy and Science Teaching. Springer. pp. 1203-1233.
    This chapter utilises scholarship in philosophy of biology and philosophy of chemistry to produce meaningful implications for biology and chemistry education. The primary purpose for studying philosophical literature is to identify different perspectives on the nature of laws and explanations within these disciplines. The goal is not to resolve ongoing debates about the nature of laws and explanations but to consider their multiple forms and purposes in ways that promote deep and practical understanding of biological and chemical knowledge in educational (...)
  22. On Explanations in Physics: Sketch of an Alternative to Hempel's Account of the Explanation of Laws.Jon Dorling - 1978 - Philosophy of Science 45 (1):136-140.
  23. Laws and Explanation in History.William H. Dray - 1957 - Greenwood Press.
  24. Explanation, Causation and Laws.Dorothy Edgington - 1990 - Critica 22 (66):55 - 73.
  25. Explaining Experience In Nature: The Foundations Of Logic And Apprehension.Steven Ericsson-Zenith - forthcoming - Institute for Advanced Science & Engineering.
    At its core this book is concerned with logic and computation with respect to the mathematical characterization of sentient biophysical structure and its behavior. -/- Three related theories are presented: The first of these provides an explanation of how sentient individuals come to be in the world. The second describes how these individuals operate. And the third proposes a method for reasoning about the behavior of individuals in groups. -/- These theories are based upon a new explanation of experience in (...)
  26. Uniqueness and Historical Laws.Evan Fales - 1980 - 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 (...)
  27. 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 (...)
  28. Nancy Cartwright on Scientific Laws and Scientific Explanation.I. Hanzel - 1999 - Filozofia 54 (10):717-730.
  29. 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 (...)
  30. 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 (...)
  31. 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.
  32. Marc Lange: Natural Laws in Scientific Practice.Daniel Heard - 2003 - Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 12 (1):53-59.
  33. Humean Laws and Circular Explanation.Michael Townsen Hicks & Peter van Elswyk - 2015 - Philosophical Studies 172 (2):433-443.
    Humeans are often accused of accounting for natural laws in such a way that the fundamental entities that are supposed to explain the laws circle back and explain themselves. Loewer (Philos Stud 160(1):115–137, 2012) contends this is only the appearance of circularity. When it comes to the laws of nature, the Humean posits two kinds of explanation: metaphysical and scientific. The circle is then cut because the kind of explanation the laws provide for the fundamental entities is distinct from the (...)
  34. Can Bare Dispositions Explain Categorical Regularities?Tyler Hildebrand - 2014 - 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 (...)
  35. Can Primitive Laws Explain?Tyler Hildebrand - 2013 - 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 (...)
  36. Contrastive Explanation and the Demons of Determinism.C. Hitchcock - 1999 - 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 (...)
  37. Natural Laws in Scientific Practice. By Marc Lange. [REVIEW]C. Hoeckley - 2003 - The European Legacy 8 (2):237-237.
  38. Explaining Laws of Nature: A Metaphysical Investigation Into the Natural Principles Governing the Universe.Siegfried Jaag - unknown -
  39. Marc Lange, Natural Laws in Scientific Practice. [REVIEW]L. Jaeger - 2003 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 17 (3):313-314.
  40. 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 (...)
  41. 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 (...)
  42. Moving Parts: The Natural Alliance Between Dynamical and Mechanistic Modeling Approaches.David Michael Kaplan - 2015 - Biology and Philosophy 30 (6):757-786.
    Recently, it has been provocatively claimed that dynamical modeling approaches signal the emergence of a new explanatory framework distinct from that of mechanistic explanation. This paper rejects this proposal and argues that dynamical explanations are fully compatible with, even naturally construed as, instances of mechanistic explanations. Specifically, it is argued that the mathematical framework of dynamics provides a powerful descriptive scheme for revealing temporal features of activities in mechanisms and plays an explanatory role to the extent it is deployed for (...)
  43. Realms of Explanation: Theory and Illustrations.Joyce Kinoshita - 1983 - Dissertation, Stanford University
    How do explanations explain? In my thesis, I examine how C. G. Hempel and N. R. Hanson answer this question; I then propose my own answer, and finally illustrate my proposed theory with applications of chemical explanations and I Ching explanations. ;Hempel claims that explanations explain an event's occurrence by showing that it is just what we should have expected, given the laws of nature and the prevailing conditions. Hanson protests that this characterization admits as explanations "mere actuarial" correlations. He (...)
  44. Grounding, Scientific Explanation, and Humean Laws.Marc Lange - 2013 - 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 (...)
  45. Why Do the Laws Explain Why?Marc Lange - 2009 - In Toby Handfield (ed.), Dispositions and Causes. Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press ;.
  46. Natural Laws in Scientific Practice.Marc Lange - 2000 - 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 (...)
  47. Real Law in Charles Peirce's Pragmaticism.Catherine Legg - 1999 - In Howard Sankey (ed.), Causation and Laws of Nature. Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp. 125--142.
  48. Can Mechanisms Really Replace Laws of Nature?Bert Leuridan - 2010 - 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 (...)
  49. Are Statistical Hypotheses Covering Laws?Isaac Levi - 1969 - Synthese 20 (3):297 - 307.
  50. On the Nature of Scientific Law and Scientific Explanation.Thomas J. McCormack - 1900 - The Monist 10 (4):549-572.
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