The Dynamics of Explanation: Mathematical Modeling and Scientific Understanding

Dissertation, Indiana University (1997)

This dissertation challenges two prevalent views on the topic of scientific explanation: that science explains by revealing causal mechanisms, and that science explains by unifying our knowledge of the world. ;My methodological strategy is to compare our best current philosophical accounts of scientific explanation with evidence from contemporary scientific research. In particular, I focus on evidence from dynamical explanations, that is, explanations which appeal to nonlinear dynamical modeling for their force. Nonlinear dynamical modeling is a type of mathematical modeling which is used by scientists in many different disciplines, including population biology, ecology, physics, and psychology. ;Chapter 1 argues that dynamical explanations are a philosophically important class of explanations, based on their prevalence and their close relationship with the semantic view of theories. ;Chapters 2 and 3 conclude that extant causal and unification accounts encounter serious difficulties when applied to dynamical explanations. Chapter 2 argues that causal relevance is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for explanatory relevance. Chapter 3 clarifies and evaluates different claims about the unifying power of science. Here, I argue that dynamical explanations provide some support for the thesis that unification is constitutive of explanation. However, dynamical explanations also indicate that some of the intuitions embodied in extant unification accounts are untenable. ;Chapter 4 concludes by advancing diagnostic criticisms of existing causal and unification accounts. I explore the relationships between dynamical explanations and three conceptions of scientific explanation, as well as the relationships between different types of inference and scientific understanding. I suggest that philosophers look to cognitive science and the semantic view of theories for aid in constructing a viable positive account of explanation. ;The technical appendix introduces several key definitions and concepts of dynamical systems theory
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