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Explanation

Explanation


When one wants to understand something, one asks for an explanation. In principle, everything can be the object of explanation. Some explanations, such as in classification and interpretation, explain what something is: What is a whale? It is a mammal; Could you explain the movie Dr. Strangelove to me? It is about the Cold War. Some explanations explain how something works or how something is possible: How does the door open? Press the button; How is it possible that some children survive the most cruel experiences? There are adults who love them and care about them. Finally, some explanations explain why something happens: Why did the aircraft crash? Because one of its motors came loose. In all three cases, the explanation is supposed to yield knowledge. Concerning the why-questions, however, not all are requests for an explanation and, thus, not every answer to a why-question yields knowledge. Some why-questions express the wish to find consolation (Why have you abandoned me?) or the wish to get rid of prejudices (Why should men and women not get the same salary for the same job?). In the science and religion discussion it is intensely debated whether religious answers to such a question as "Why is the universe so special and finely tuned for life?" are explanations, yielding knowledge, or whether they have other functions in the believer's life.


The covering law model

Quite often explanations of why something is the case are related to causation. Other explanations are functional or teleological, as they are also called. The white fur of the polar bear is explained by its camouflage function. A common view is that those explanations actually are causal explanations referring to past causes in evolution that led to the natural selection of the biological trait in question. Causal and functional or teleological explanations are seen as two different variants of the so-called covering law model.

According to the covering law model, an explanation of an event consists in subsuming it under a causal law: All metals expand when heated; this rod is metallic and it was heated; therefore, it expanded. There are four conditions for such a scientific explanation:

  1. The explanandum (The rod has expanded.) has to follow logically from the explanans (All metals expand when heated; this rod is metallic and it was heated.). Only if the explanandum can be deduced from the initial circumstances and the applied causal laws, the explanandum is really explained and justifies the prediction of a similar event, even if it has not been observed yet.
  2. The applied causal laws (All metals expand when heated.) have to be laws proper and not only all-statements. It is not an explanation to say: "All apples in this basket are red; this apple is from the basket; therefore, the apple is red."
  3. The explanans needs to have empirical content; it should be possible, at least in principle, to confirm or falsify the explanans through experience. Without this condition explanations like God's wrath as the cause of historical catastrophes could not be excluded from science.
  4. The explanans has to be true. If it were false, the implication between the explanans and any explanandum would be true for logical reasons and the explanandum would not be explained.

Although the covering law model cannot be applied everywhere in its strict form, it is supposed to represent an ideal that at least all explanations in the natural sciences that are answers to why-questions ought to strive to attain. It satisfies one feature that one would expect of such explanations, namely, that it explain why a certain event occurred and not another. By subsuming an event under causal laws, it is shown that the event had to occur. The price to be paid for this is determinism, excluding the possibility of exceptions. One way of coping with this difficulty is to allow deterministic as well as nondeterministic explanations. Thus, the explanation of a patient's death from lung cancer may take the form of a statistical explanation referring to the frequency of dying from lung cancer and smoking heavily. According to this variant of the covering law model, the explanandum is not deduced from the explanans. It is supposed to follow with an inductive probability. The reference is not to exceptionless laws but to statistical regularities concerning events and to tendencies concerning human actions.

Rational reconstruction

Another model of explanation that is supposed to be an alternative to the covering law model in, for instance, historical research consists in explaining an event as the result of human action by rational reconstruction. First, an event is shown to be an intentional act that the agent in question has undertaken in accordance with beliefs that seemed reasonable in the situation at issue. Second, the critical examination of the agent's beliefs, whether true or reasonable, contributes to explain why the action resulted in precisely that event. So, in some historical cases, the fact that the belief in the enemy's strength was false may explain why the army was defeated in a certain battle.


Explanation in the science-religion dialogue

One frequently discussed question in theology and in philosophy of religion concerns the relationship between scientific and religious explanations: whether they are on the same categorical level or belong to completely different domains. The difference between scientific and religious explanations is sometimes identified by pointing out that science causes questions that go beyond its own power to answer, for instance, the question "Why is the universe so special and finely tuned for life?" Since this question is not a question formed within science, it cannot be answered scientifically. Instead, the question is a metaphysical why-question, wherefore it can be answered, for instance, theistically by saying "because the universe is created by God who wills that it be so." Since it is not always clear to what extent cosmological theories about the beginning of the universe are metaphysically laden, it is also not clear to what extent the theistic answer competes with scientific explanations or with the metaphysical aspects of some of these theories.


See also Causality, Primary and Secondary; Causation


Bibliography

clayton, philip d. explanations from physics to theology: an essay in rationality and religion. new haven, conn.: yale university press, 1989.

collingwood, robin george. the idea of history, rev. edition. oxford: clarendon press, 1993.

dray, william h. laws and explanation in history. oxford: oxford university press, 1957.

gregersen, niels henrik, and van huyssteen, j. wentzel, eds. rethinking theology and science: six models for the current dialogue. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1998.

hempel, carl g. aspects of scientific explanation and other essays in the philosophy of science. new york: free press, 1965.

polkinghorne, john charlton. quarks, chaos, and christianity: questions to science and religion. london: triangle, 1994.

van fraassen, bas c. the scientific image. oxford: clarendon press, 1980.

von wright, georg henrik. explanation and understanding. london: routledge and kegan paul, 1971.

eberhard herrmann

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explanation

ex·pla·na·tion / ˌekspləˈnāshən/ • n. a statement or account that makes something clear: the birth rate is central to any explanation of population trends. ∎  a reason or justification given for an action or belief: my application was rejected without explanation.

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explanation

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