Why do temporary invariances explain in biology and the social sciences?

Alex Rosenberg
Duke University
The issue of whether there are laws in biology and the “special science”1 has been of interest owing to the debate about whether scientific explanation requires laws. A well-warn argument goes thus: no laws in social science, no explanations, or at least no scientific explanations, at most explanation-sketches. The conclusion is not just a matter of labeling. If explanations are not scientific they are not epistemically or practically reliable. There are at least three well-known diagnoses of where this argument goes wrong. First, the argument that there are no laws in social science adopts an account of laws that is too stringent, one that not even the physical sciences satisfy (Cartwright 1983, Mitchell 2000). On a less stringent definition, there are plenty of laws in social science (and biology). These laws are, sensu Fodor, “non-strict,” as opposed to the “strict laws” (if any—vide Cartwright 1983) of physics. Second, scientific explanation does not require laws, and when laws do explain, they do so because they satisfy some other requirement on scientific explanation, for example unification, or the identification of causal difference-makers (Friedman 1974, Kitcher 1989, Salmon 1984, Strevens 2009). A third view, increasingly attractive among philosophers of social science and biology is due to James Woodward (2000, 2003). This view, like the second one eschews laws and identifies causes as difference makers. On this view explanations do require regularities, but these regularities need only satisfy a requirement of “invariance” under certain specified circumstances, in order to be explanatory, and..
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