Explanatory Value and Probabilistic Reasoning: An Empirical Study

Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society (2016)
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The relation between probabilistic and explanatory reasoning is a classical topic in philosophy of science. Most philosophical analyses are concerned with the compatibility of Inference to the Best Explanation with probabilistic, Bayesian inference, and the impact of explanatory considerations on the assignment of subjective probabilities. This paper reverses the question and asks how causal and explanatory considerations are affected by probabilistic information. We investigate how probabilistic information determines the explanatory value of a hypothesis, and in which sense folk explanatory practice can be said to be rational. Our study identifies three main factors in reasoning about a explanatory hypothesis: cognitive salience, rational acceptability and logical entailment. This corresponds well to the variety of philosophical accounts of explanation. Moreover, we show that these factors are highly sensitive to manipulations of probabilistic information. This finding suggests that probabilistic reasoning is a crucial part of explanatory inferences, and it motivates new avenues of research in the debate about Inference to the Best Explanation and probabilistic measures of explanatory power.



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Jan Sprenger
University of Turin
Matteo Colombo
Tilburg University

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