Philosophy of Science Essay

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Scientific Explanation

Must every scientific explanation contain a law of nature? For those who support the Deductive-Nomological Account, the answer is yes. Discuss critically the arguments for and against this view, and present your own analysis of which is stronger.

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Must every scientific explanation contain a law of nature? For those who support the Deductive-Nomological Account, the answer is yes. Discuss critically the arguments for and against this view, and present your own analysis of which is stronger.

Deductive-Nomological Account

Arguments for and against the statement

Must every scientific explanation contain a law of nature? For those who support the Deductive-Nomological Account, the answer is yes. Discuss critically the arguments for and against this view, and present your own analysis of which is stronger.


"Explanation" is sometimes used in what might be called its "pedagogical" or "clarificatory" sense, as opposed to the sense of explanation that we use when we want to talk about accounting for phenomenon (Trout, 2002) Isaac Asimov, the great science and science-fiction writer earned a reputation as "the great explainer" of science. This is because he helped disseminate, popularize, and clarify scientific concepts. It is also despite the fact that he did little scientific research in his life, either theoretical or applied, and was generally not involved in accounting for previously unaccounted-for scientific phenomena. Asimov was mostly involved in purely pedagogical projects. In the pedagogical sense of "explanation" one makes a topic clear in a psychologically useful way (Hempel, 1963) to the individual it is being explained to. It is in that "popularizing" sense that Asimov earned his moniker. In a case where we seek to elucidate science in a psychologically useful way, we speak of explainers and explainees (Bromberger) not explanans or explananda. Asimov was an explainer of science to explainees. He did not necessarily provide sets of explanans and explananda in any rigorous way. To the extent that Asimov might have presented sets of explanans and explananda to popular audiences, he earned his title not in virtue of that, but in virtue of his ability to present and describe those explanans and explananda in a way that was comprehensible to a non-scientific audience.

But what is a law of nature? What is a theory? Are there better and worse methods of structuring taxonomies?; Can testing a hypothesis prove a theory?; And what is an explanation? We constantly encounter questions about the nature of scientific theories. Evolutionary biology, for example, is dismissed by its detractors as "merely a theory." Scientists themselves on the other hand are very impressed at having something as well worked out as a theory of the origins of life on Earth. But neither evolutionary biologists nor their detractors would have an easy time telling even an intelligent audience exactly what they mean when they use the word "theory." Is a theory an educated guess? Is it something we are only somewhat confident of? Is it a way of putting together the data? What sort of things is included in theories? What is the point of a theory? How does a theory differ from a recitation of the known facts?

A scientific explanation must contain a law of nature. Those who support the Deductive-Nomological Account believe in this statement. The current paper is a discussion of the arguments for and against this view.

Deductive-Nomological Account

The Deductive-Nomological approach is most closely identified with Hempel. Salmon calls this model an "inferential" conception which ties explanation to nomic expects ability. Another epistemic conception is the "information theoretic" view which relates to the subsumption of much information under a more compressed rubric, and is most closely identified with Philip Kitcher. Finally, the erotetic or why-question approach is the last epistemic conception of explanation and is most closely identified with Bas van Fraassen.

Deductive Nomological Account makes it necessary for a phenomenon to be under a law of nature. This model of scientific explanation is very attractive for many aspects. For example in physics textbook we find derivations from laws to explain everything from picky observations motions to high-level simplifications. In the deductive-nomological acicount an explanation is constructed as a sound deductive argument that makes necessary employ of no less than one law of nature;

"Explanationdeductively subsumes the explanation under general laws and thus shows, to put it loosely, that according to those laws the explanandum-phenomenon "had to occur" in virtue of the particular circumstancesHempel" (Hempel, 2001, P. 70).

As, current essay is a discussion of the arguments for and against the statement that "every scientific explanation must contain a law of nature," below is a discussion of these arguments.

Arguments for and against the statement

Arguments against the Statement

Besides the debate on whether a scientific must contain a law of nature or not there are many accounts of scientific explanation which all contain dissimilar explanations. Much can be said on the merits and drawbacks of the typical accounts of explanations. As there are different accounts through which scientific explanations are constructed and their virtues are different and conflicting. That is why it is not right that scientific explanation must be based on a law of nature.

An example is theory of gravity presented by Newton which proves to be challenging for models of scientific explanations. This theory of universal gravitational attraction has been exceptionally successful, which showed a great variety of same type of phenomena and predicted the behavior of different kinds of systems from same law. In contrast, the attraction to distance was also considered complex and it was questioned as to whether the theory actually could have acknowledged the substantial causes of the motions predicted by the theory.

Though supporters of deductive-normological account are in favor of the compulsion of one nature of law for a scientific explanation yet many counter-examples are present to the deductive-normological account. Among these examples, above all is the issue of explanatory unevenness. There are cases in which the relation of explanation is not symmetrical. To solve these issues one has to be more careful about law of nature. There is also a need to carefully note any implied ceteris paribus clauses and whether or not they are violated.

Mancosu (2001) claims that since "theories of scientific explanation often attempt to characterize the "scientific" aspect of an explanation independently of the subject area in which it might be offered," "they should thus be able to capture mathematical explanations." Their failure to do so shows a serious limitation of their theories. But this begs the question of the continuity and similarities of mathematics and the natural and social sciences. Mancosu as much as admits this when he claims that if we cannot find a common theory of explanation for both it "will reveal a very interesting difference between the two domains." But clearly mathematics and science exhibit many structural and methodological (if not ontological) differences; e.g., observations, theories, contingency, and laws are just some of the features of science that it does not share with mathematics. Why should the inclusion of "explanation "in this list be particularly interesting? Mancosu does not elaborate. Nonetheless he insists that "it is thus clear that mathematical explanations can be used to test theories of scientific explanation."

Arguments for First of all, scientists have always seen it as one of their principle duties to explain the phenomena. Aristotle's discussion of the four causes is the first known attempt to precisely articulate what a scientific explanation consists of. To fully explain something, Aristotle claimed, we must analyze what it is made of, what shape it is, what process made it, and what it is made for. Modern scientists too seek to offer explanations, not exactly the way Aristotle did, but in many respects not all that differently. To explain something is to somehow account for its existence or presence. Scientists, for example, account for the phenomena of earthquakes, that is, they explain their occurrence, by appealing to plate tectonics, the theory that describes the nature of the Earth's plates that move against each other in particular ways. (Kahl)

More recently the question of scientific explanation was reinvigorated by the Logical Positivists. Logical Positivism thrived mainly during the period between the two world wars, and began to seriously wane around the early 1960s. During the positivist era, there was a growing discomfort with the extant philosophical outlook which had been dominated by the Fichte, Schelling, post-Kantian, and neo-Hegelian traditions. Scientific and philosophical explanations were laden with transcendental metaphysics, theology, teleology, and entelechies. Positivists believed that the primary task of philosophy was to describe the scientific enterprise, and discard all the unnecessary metaphysics that was (and sometimes still is) identified with philosophy in general. Once that was done, philosophers would have contributed all they can to advance human knowledge and a period of real knowledge acquisition, i.e., the accumulation of scientific information, could then begin without intractable metaphysics haunting them. (Ayer, 1936)

My Opinion

I think the views against the statement "must every scientific explanation contain a law of nature" are stronger…[continue]

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