Narratives, mechanisms and progress in historical science

Synthese 191 (6):1-21 (2014)

Adrian Currie
Cambridge University
Geologists, Paleontologists and other historical scientists are frequently concerned with narrative explanations targeting single cases. I show that two distinct explanatory strategies are employed in narratives, simple and complex. A simple narrative has minimal causal detail and is embedded in a regularity, whereas a complex narrative is more detailed and not embedded. The distinction is illustrated through two case studies: the ‘snowball earth’ explanation of Neoproterozoic glaciation and recent attempts to explain gigantism in Sauropods. This distinction is revelatory of historical science. I argue that at least sometimes which strategy is appropriate is not a pragmatic issue, but turns on the nature of the target. Moreover, the distinction reveals a counterintuitive pattern of progress in some historical explanation: shifting from simple to complex. Sometimes, historical scientists rightly abandon simple, unified explanations in favour of disunified, complex narratives. Finally I compare narrative and mechanistic explanation, arguing that mechanistic approaches are inappropriate for complex narrative explanations
Keywords Explanation  Narrative  Mechanism  Historical science   Scientific progress
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DOI 10.1007/s11229-013-0317-x
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Simplicity, one-shot hypotheses and paleobiological explanation.Adrian Currie - 2019 - History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 41 (1):10.
Introduction: Scientific Knowledge of the Deep Past.Adrian Currie & Derek Turner - 2016 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 55:43-46.
Testing Hypotheses in Macroevolution.Lindell Bromham - 2016 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 55:47-59.
A Second Look at the Colors of the Dinosaurs.Derek D. Turner - 2016 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 55:60-68.

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