Causal and Constitutive Explanation Compared

Erkenntnis 78 (2):277-297 (2013)
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This article compares causal and constitutive explanation. While scientific inquiry usually addresses both causal and constitutive questions, making the distinction is crucial for a detailed understanding of scientific questions and their interrelations. These explanations have different kinds of explananda and they track different sorts of dependencies. Constitutive explanations do not address events or behaviors, but causal capacities. While there are some interesting relations between building and causal manipulation, causation and constitution are not to be confused. Constitution is a synchronous and asymmetric relation between relata that cannot be conceived as independent existences. However, despite their metaphysical differences, the same key ideas about explanation largely apply to both. Causal and constitutive explanations face similar challenges (such as the problems of relevance and explanatory regress) and both are in the business of mapping networks of counterfactual dependence—i.e. mechanisms—although the relevant counterfactuals are of a different sort. In the final section the issue of developmental explanation is discussed. It is argued that developmental explanations deserve their own place in taxonomy of explanations, although ultimately developmental dependencies can be analyzed as combinations of causal and constitutive dependencies. Hence, causal and constitutive explanation are distinct, but not always completely separate forms of explanation.



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Petri Ylikoski
University of Helsinki

Citations of this work

Explaining Explanations in AI.Brent Mittelstadt - forthcoming - FAT* 2019 Proceedings 1.
The Metaphysics of Constitutive Mechanistic Phenomena.Marie I. Kaiser & Beate Krickel - 2017 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 68 (3).
Counterfactuals and Explanatory Pluralism.Kareem Khalifa, Gabriel Doble & Jared Millson - 2018 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 71 (4):1439-1460.
Does IBE Require a ‘Model’ of Explanation?Frank Cabrera - 2020 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 71 (2):727-750.

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The Sciences of the Artificial.Herbert Alexander Simon - 1969 - Cambridge, Massachusetts: [Cambridge, M.I.T. Press.
Explaining the brain: mechanisms and the mosaic unity of neuroscience.Carl F. Craver - 2007 - New York : Oxford University Press,: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press.
Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation.Michael Strevens - 2008 - Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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