Why one model is never enough: a defense of explanatory holism

Biology and Philosophy 32 (6):1105-1125 (2017)
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Traditionally, a scientific model is thought to provide a good scientific explanation to the extent that it satisfies certain scientific goals that are thought to be constitutive of explanation. Problems arise when we realize that individual scientific models cannot simultaneously satisfy all the scientific goals typically associated with explanation. A given model’s ability to satisfy some goals must always come at the expense of satisfying others. This has resulted in philosophical disputes regarding which of these goals are in fact necessary for explanation, and as such which types of models can and cannot provide explanations. Explanatory monists argue that one goal will be explanatory in all contexts, while explanatory pluralists argue that the goal will vary based on pragmatic considerations. In this paper, I argue that such debates are misguided, and that both monists and pluralists are incorrect. Instead of any goal being given explanatory priority over others in a given context, the different goals are all deeply dependent on one another for their explanatory power. Any model that sacrifices some explanatory goals to attain others will always necessarily undermine its own explanatory power in the process. And so when forced to choose between individual scientific models, there can be no explanatory victors. Given that no model can satisfy all the goals typically associated with explanation, no one model in isolation can provide a good scientific explanation. Instead we must appeal to collections of models. Collections of models provide an explanation when they satisfy the web of interconnected goals that justify the explanatory power of one another.

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Eric Hochstein
University of Victoria