Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Program

Philosophy

Supervisor

Robert W. Batterman

Abstract

Scientific explanation is an important goal of scientific practise. Philosophers have proposed a striking diversity of seemingly incompatible accounts of explanation, from deductive-nomological to statistical relevance, unification, pragmatic, causal-mechanical, mechanistic, causal intervention, asymptotic, and model-based accounts. In this dissertation I apply two novel methods to reexamine our evidence about scientific explanation in practise and thereby address the fragmentation of philosophical accounts.

I start by collecting a data set of 781 articles from one year of the journal Science. Using automated text mining techniques I measure the frequency and distribution of several groups of philosophically interesting words, such as "explain", "cause", "evidence", "theory", "law", "mechanism", and "model". I show that "explain" words are much more common in scientific writing than in other genres, occurring in roughly half of all articles, and that their use is very often qualified or negated. These results about the use of words complement traditional conceptual analysis.

Next I use random samples from the data set to develop a large number of small case studies across a wide range of scientific disciplines. I use a sample of "explain" sentences to develop and defend a new general philosophical account of scientific explanation, and then test my account against a larger set of randomly sampled sentences and abstracts. Five coarse categories can classify the explanans and explananda of my cases: data, entities, kinds, models, and theories. The pair of the categories of the explanans and explanandum indicates the "form" of an explanation. The explain-relation supports counterfactual reasoning about the dependence of qualities of the explanandum on qualities of the explanans. But for each form there is a different "core relation" between explanans and explanandum that supports the explain-relation. Causation, modelling, and argument are the core relations for different forms of scientific explanation between different categories of explanans and explananda. This flexibility allows me to resolve some of the fragmentation in the philosophical literature. I provide empirical evidence to show that my general philosophical account successfully describes a wide range of scientific practise across a large number of scientific disciplines.


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