What Good Is an Explanation?

In G. Hon & S. Rakover (eds.), Explanation. Springer Verlag. pp. 43-59 (2001)
Abstract
We are addicted to explanation, constantly asking and answering why-questions. But what does an explanation give us? I will consider some of the possible goods, intrinsic and instrumental, that explanations provide. The name for the intrinsic good of explanation is `understanding', but what is this? In the first part of this paper I will canvass various conceptions of understanding, according to which explanations provide reasons for belief, make familiar, unify, show to be necessary, or give causes. Three general features of explanation will serve as tests of these varied conceptions. These features are: a) the distinction between knowing that a phenomena occurs and understanding why it does; b) the possibility of giving explanations that are not themselves explained; c) the possibility of explaining a phenomenon in cases where the phenomenon itself provides an essential part of the reason for believing that the explanation is correct. There are many other aspects of our explanatory practices that a good account of explanation and understanding should capture, but these simple tests provide surprisingly effective diagnostic tools for the evaluation of broad conceptions of the nature of understanding. It will turn out that the causal conception of understanding does particularly well on the tests, though of course it too faces various difficulties. The balance of this essay focuses on the causal conception. After addressing some of the difficulties it faces, I will ask..
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