In Kostas Kampourakis & Tobias Uller (eds.), Philosophy of Science for Biologists. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (2020)

Angela Potochnik
University of Cincinnati
One of biology's fundamental aims is to generate understanding of the living world around—and within—us. In this chapter, I aim to provide a relatively nonpartisan discussion of the nature of explanation in biology, grounded in widely shared philosophical views about scientific explanation. But this discussion also reflects what I think is important for philosophers and biologists alike to appreciate about successful scientific explanations, so some points will be controversial, at least among philosophers. I make three main points: (1) causal relationships and broad patterns have often been granted importance to scientific explanations, and they are in fact both important; (2) some explanations in biology cite the components of or processes in systems that account for the systems’ features, whereas other explanations feature large-scale or structural causes that influence a system; and (3) there can be multiple different explanations of a given biological phenomenon, explanations that respond to different research aims and can thus be compatible with one another even when they may seem to disagree.
Keywords explanation  causal explanation  biology explanation  patterns in biology
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