Scientific Explanation and Trade-Offs Between Explanatory Virtues

Foundations of Science 26 (4):1075-1087 (2019)
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Abstract

“Explanation” refers to a wide range of activities, with a family resemblance between them. Most satisfactory explanations in a discipline for a domain fail to satisfy some general desiderata, while fulfilling others. This can happen in various ways. Why? An idealizing response would be to say that in real science explanations fall short along some dimensions, so that for any explanatory failure there is a conceivable improvement that addresses its shortcomings. The improvement may be more accurate causally or possess more unifying power, or deliver deeper understanding. We formulate a drastically less idealizing response. We argue that there are typically trade-offs in explanation, so that in strengthening one explanatory virtue one will usually weaken another. Scientific explanations, if this is correct, are constrained by such trade-offs. Particular trade-offs are appropriate for particular explanatory vehicles. There are the overarching equations of theoretical physics, which produce unification at the expense of causal detail; there are theoretical models of phenomena that occupy a middle ground between generality and the detailed workings of particular cases and get closer to explaining the workings of specific systems at the expense of unification. Sometimes experiments aim at general causal patterns at the expense of particular detail; and sometimes they are designed to give us information of particular detail at the expense of generality. There are further trade-offs associated with other vehicles of explanation. We provide examples from physics and biology.

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Author Profiles

Alirio Rosales
University of British Columbia
Adam Morton
PhD: Princeton University; Last affiliation: University of British Columbia

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References found in this work

Causality: Models, Reasoning and Inference.Judea Pearl - 2000 - New York: Cambridge University Press.
The Scientific Image.William Demopoulos & Bas C. van Fraassen - 1982 - Philosophical Review 91 (4):603.
Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics.Peter Galison (ed.) - 1997 - University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
Causality: Models, Reasoning and Inference.Judea Pearl - 2000 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 64 (1):201-202.

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