Sunday, December 2, 2012

What is the nature of explanation?

Some questions about the nature of explanation:
      What is an explanation? What kinds of explanations are there for things? What constitutes a sufficient or adequate explanation for something? How is descriptive adequacy different from explanatory adequacy? How is a theoretical explanation different from a practical explanation? What are the criteria for a sufficient explanation of something? When is a causal explanation a complete explanation? Can a causal explanation be a complete explanation? Is there such a thing as a complete explanation? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for an adequate explanation of something? Can a sufficient explanation of something not be a logical or rational explanation? What degree of certainty must belong to an explanation in order for it to be considered a possible, probable, likely, or certain explanation? What makes explanations necessary or unnecessary? What are the possible motives for, and consequences of, seeking and providing explanations for things?
Some propositions concerning the nature of explanation:
      Explanations, in their content, may be adequate or inadequate, sufficient or insufficient, complete or incomplete.
      Explanations, in their form, may include arguments, demonstrations, and inferences (deductions, inductions, and abductions).
      Explanations, in their modality, may be possible, actual, necessary, not possible, not actual, or not necessary.
      Explanations, in their power and adequacy, may be plausible or implausible, convincing or unconvincing, definitive or in need of further corroboration. They may have varying degrees of explanatory power (efficacy) and adequacy.
      Explanations render things understandable.An adequate explanation of something renders that thing understandable.
      The intelligible world consists of things for which there are (or can be) explanations, and for which we can potentially or actually find explanations.
      Those things for which there are no explanations, or for which there cannot possibly be any explanation, or for which we cannot possibly or actually find any explanation, may be unintelligible to us.
      In order for an explanation to "make sense" and be logically consistent, it must not be self-contradictory. In order for an explanation to render something understandable, it must itself be understandable.
      To explain is to account for, to make clear the reason for, to render intelligible, or to shed light on whatever has previously been, or would otherwise be, obscure and unintelligible. Explanations are, for the most part, not required for things that are self-evident.
      The following propositions may be true of explanation:
       1.  p "explains" q if and only if p accounts
               for q
       2.  p accounts for q if and only if p is a
               sufficient condition for q
       3.  if p is a sufficient condition for q, then p
               "explains" q
      Explanations have pragmatic dimensions; they have a variety of uses, purposes, and functions.
      Explanations may be classified in many ways. One possible way of classifying them may be to divide them into logical (formal), nomological (teleological or doctrinal), empirical (causal, material, or physical), and social (psychological, cultural, or historical) explanations.
      There may be many explanations for a given event, fact, or phenomenon, and they may vary in their form, content, modality, efficacy, and adequacy.
      To sufficiently answer any question of the form, "Why is A the case?" is to give a sufficient explanation of A. Any adequate answer to the question of why A is the case entails giving an adequate explanation of A.
      A purported explanation of something may not be a true or actual explanation of that thing. An explanation that turns out to be false in its premises or conclusions may not actually explain whatever it is purported to explain.
      Explanation may in some cases be a condition for understanding. In order to understand something, we may have to be able to explain why it is as it is and why it is not otherwise.
      Any clause that begins with the word "because" is a causal explanation.
      An event that previously served as an explanation for a second event may no longer explain that event if the conditions for that event have changed.
      There may be primary and secondary explanations for things.
      If the motives of an individual are the primary reason for (or explanation of) his or her actions, then the moral quality of those actions may be entirely different from the moral quality of those actions whose expected or intended consequences were the primary reason for (or explanation of) their having been performed.
      There are some truths that appear to be certain or highly probable but that elude or defy complete explanation.

1Peter Achinstein, The Nature of Explanation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 63.

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