~ Mark Twain
One simple way of identifying the defining characteristic of an explanation is to distinguish it from an argument. Whereas an argument provides reasons we should believe something, an explanation provides reasons why something we already believe, actually occurs. In rhyme:
- An argument says how we know.
- An explanation says why it is so.
I doubt any reader of this blog will need to be convinced of Twain's fundamental point, that passionate commitment to falsehoods can cause far greater harm than simple ignorance. My point is that what we know that ain't so is also a nice way to appreciate the fact that explanation has a larger role than simply accounting for the facts.
Another. I recently read Philip Roth's book American Pastoral. It is predicated on a sensationally unlikely event: A teenage girl raised in an affluent New York family by two devoted and loving parents (allegedly) bombs a local post office, killing a local man, an (apparently) loco act of protest against the Vietnam War, and then (unquestionably) disappears. Almost the entire book is an act of excruciating soul searching in which the girl's father attempts to understand how a child he raised could have performed such an abominable act. There is just no explanation for it compatible with his understanding of the world. Consequently- he often confidently concludes, only to reverse himself a moment later- she simply could not have done it.
Ok, enough, now you are coming up with examples of your own. They're everywhere. So what is the subtler account of explanation that emerges here?
Try this: Explanation is fundamentally an attempt to improve our understanding of the world. Sometimes accepted facts will challenge our limited understanding and we are forced to develop better theories to account for them. Other times a better understanding of the world will challenge our 'facts', and we are forced to consider the possibility that what we know just ain't so. On those occasions, our understanding will be improved by explaining how we came to be convinced of a falsehood. As I'll explain in a future post, a very large number of pivotal explanatory episodes in the history of science can be understood in this way, not as the explanation of accepted facts, but as the explanation of universal illusions.
G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy