What is an "explanation"?

There seems to be two schools of thought in philosophy for what counts as an explanation. One school of thought says that an explanation is that which makes sense of a phenomenon by connecting causes and effects in such a way that the effects seems to follow from the causes necessarily. Let’s call this the “necessity theory” of explanation. The other school of thought says that an explanation is that which simply states the way a phenomenon works regardless of whether the causes and effects constituting the phenomenon end up seeming necessary or not. Let’s call this the “brute fact theory” of explanation (or “contingency theory” but I don’t like that term).

I always think of Newton’s theory of gravity as the best example to use because it encompasses both kinds. For those of you who don’t know, Newton explained the orbit of the planets in terms of gravity. All planets in orbit (or moons, or suns, or asteroids, or tea cups) are really falling due to the mutual gravitation attraction between themselves and the object they are orbiting. They don’t seem to be falling because they have an addition component to their momentum hurling them parallel to the ground towards which they are falling (i.e. they’re moving horizontal at the same time as falling vertical). This horizontal motion guarantees that by the time they hit the ground, the ground won’t be there anymore–that is, because of the curvature of the object they are orbit (like the curvature of the Earth), the ground beneath them (towards which they are falling) ends up curving away from them as they move parallel to it. So by the time they hit the ground (that isn’t there anymore), they’re actually positioned way above the ground, a different part of the ground, a part that is oriented 90 degrees from the original part and a quarter the way around the planet’s circumference.

If that didn’t make sense, don’t worry (I’m bad at explaining things :smiley:); a quick google search will surely do the trick (better yet, youtube probably has some nice animated simulations).

Anyway, Newton’s theory is a good example of both kinds of explanations–different aspects of the theory, that is. Newton posits the law of universal gravitation, without which his theory would never get off the ground (or maybe it would due to a lack of gravity :laughing: ). If it is true that every object that has some amount of mass exerts a proportional amount of gravity on other objects with mass, and if it is true that objects that are in orbit have some horizontal component to their motion relative the ground above which they are in orbit (which is readily verified by simple observation), then they would have to be in orbit–they would have to, that is, move in a curved or elliptical path around the center of gravity of the object around which they are orbiting. It would be necessary!

But there is another aspect of Newton’s theory that is more like the brute fact kind of explanation, and that the assertion that all objects exert of certain amount of gravitational force proportional to their mass. Newton famously admitted up front that he could not explain gravity when he said hypotheses non fingo (I frame no hypothesis). He simply stated this as a brute fact–no necessary reason why all object should exert gravity, they just do. Why should anyone therefore believe him, you ask? Because he verified it experimentally. It’s not a problem asserting a brute fact if it has been verified, especially via numerous ways, and if you put it forward as an explanation for some phenomenon, it will be right.

So Newton’s theory of planetary orbits is an example of a necessary explanation, whereas his theory of universal gravitation, on which his theory of planetary orbits hinges, is an example of a brute fact explanation.

Now that we’re all abreast on the meanings of necessary and brute fact explanations, we can finally get to the point of this thread: I want to discuss what are the pros and cons of each, and more to the point, which one counts as a “real” explanation and which doesn’t (if you don’t think both can).

I’m personally not fond of the brute fact kind of explanation. Why? Well, quite simply, when I’m looking for an explanation of something I don’t understand, or am curious about, or fascinated by, what I really want is to know why it must be that way. Better yet, I should say, I’m looking for that “Ah-hah!” feeling–that feeling that you just don’t get if someone offers you just a set of brute facts about a certain phenomenon. If I’m confused or unsure about a phenomenon, or simply curious to know more about it, what I’m really trying to do is get rid of that sense of contingency, that sense that the phenomenon just is the way it appears to be. I can see that it is the way it appears to be–so don’t give me more of that–help me get rid of that seeming contingency, help me replace the brute fact which is there before my eyes and about which I have always known with something not so brute and more than a fact–a necessary truth!

At least, that would be ideal. Maybe I won’t always get it, but when it comes to some phenomenon for which I’m looking for an expanation, I’ll take the necessary kind over the brute fact kind any day–it just seems to “satisfy” more (for lack of a better word). This feel of satisfaction is something I take it we all want in an explanation, something we all get more with necessary explanations than with brute fact explanations. I therefore take it that necessary explanations are really what we’re looking for when we ask for an explanation period.

What I really don’t get about brute fact explanations is why they’re needed at all. If any set of brute facts count as an explanation of some phenomenon, then why bother looking for a brute fact explanation in the first place? Before Newton gave us his theory of planetary orbits and universal gravitation, we knew very well that the moon orbits the Earth. That was a brute fact long before Newton was born. Why didn’t it count as all the explanation we needed? Everything we know to be true about the world by way of observing it is a brute fact. Thus, if you’re looking for brute fact explanations, you’ve already got everything you need just by looking at the world and seeing for yourself what happens to be the case and what doesn’t. Why would we look further?

I mean, I understand that looking further, looking that is for deeper and more detailed brute facts, helps give us more sophisticated understandings of phenomena, and with this we can make use of such phenomena by turning our understanding into technology and being better able to control our world, but why do we say things like “Before Newton, we didn’t understand planetary orbits, but now we do”? If brute facts count as explanations, we always understand everything we encounter–and that just doesn’t seem right to me. It doesn’t seem right to say that we always understood planetary orbits simply because we could see that it was a brute fact, or that we always understood why plants grow, or why the sun gives us heat, or why water freezes below 0 degrees celcius, etc. To make any sense out of explanations and how they give us true understandings of the nature of our world, they must be more than a collection of brute facts.

You can bring in brute facts as part of your explanation, but it only works as an explanation (i.e. as something that gives you that “ah-hah” feeling) if, when connected together with other brute facts, makes the result or the observed phenomenon seem to necessarily follow from them. This is what Newton did with his law of universal gravitation. After proving it experimentally, he brought it into his broader theory of planetary orbits, and because the law of universal gravitation was compellingly obvious as a brute fact, it followed necessarily from that law (coupled with the other brute fact that orbiting objects happen to move parallel to the ground) that orbiting objects must orbit. His theory of universal gravitation alone doesn’t stand up as much of an explanation. A fact, yes, a proven one even, but not an explanation. As a brute fact, it is useful, but only in the service of constructing necessary explanations.

If you want to question those brute facts, that’s fine. We can always use deeper (necessary) explanations–so I’m not saying the brute facts themselves are self-evidently necessary (otherwise we wouldn’t call them “brute facts”). But what makes a necessary explanation necessary is that given the brute facts, the phenomenon they serve to explain follows necessarily from them. It’s true that you don’t have to grant those brute facts, just as you don’t have to grant the premises on which a purely rational argument is grounded (however much that argument may be perfectly valid in its logic), but what makes them facts in the first place is that they have been verified somehow. So to deny them might be somewhat foolish. Assuming you grant them, then, you have to be swayed by the reasoning that leads from them (like premises) to the phenomenon they are brought in to explain (like the conclusion), and that’s what makes necessary explanations necessary.

Anyway, that’s my rant. I’ll leave it to others to give their reasons for or against either type of explanation, or perhaps other considerations that throw this whole dichotomy out the window.

Nothing ever results necessarily, but only all other things being equal. Which leaves brute fact. But brute fact doesn’t explain anything. I think you’re leaving out middle ground. Explanation is always open-ended, there is no air-tight explanation, and there never can be. Excellent OP, but I’m throwing your dichotomy out the window.

I can’t really argue with that, anon. But there does seem to be a persist debate in professional philosophy–the nature of explanation–and it does divide roughly along the lines of my dichotomy. If I had to choose between the two, it would be the necessary type of explanation, for that seems to me more like what we’re usually getting at when we ask for explanations. This dichotomy is especially noticeable when it comes to physicalist explanations of consciousness.

Any time you use words, and they make sense, you’re explaining something.

Like how with those words I was explaining the thing that is the nature of the relation between words and explanations.

And how in that last one I was explaining the thing that is an explanation as to how you explain something.

I think with enough craftiness, this could go on for a long time.

I wrote an OP once with the exact same title, by the way. Explain that!

The nature of OP seems irrelevant, it’s a selfexplanatory question.

It seems like I could rename your dichotomy as causal explanation vs mere descriptive explanation. Do you think that captures the basic difference?

Causal explanations are the result of seeing order in natural phenomena and figuring a pattern. Mere descriptive explanation might be the only option when you don’t immediately see any order or pattern striking enough to be consider causal.

In simple terms, I would define explanation as the act of relating (not simply relaying) information to someone else.

That depends on if you understand the philosophical meaning of necessity.

If you do, then all, that is everything happens of necessity.

and whether you agree with it. Logical Necessity is one thing, and Natural Necessity another. Hume remained skeptical of natural necessity.

Yes, but why do they make sense? Aren’t they showing a logical connection between brute facts and showing that together those brute facts lead to a conclusion of some kind?

It’s a common question, I guess.

Apparently not; if there are two contending answers to the question, how is it self-explanatory?

Not quite. The descriptive term works fine for brute fact explanations but the causal term is not quite what I had in mind for necessary explanations. What makes a necessary explanation necessary is the logic that holds between the brute facts, or that follows from the premises. It’s not really about causal connections between events. To me, causality speaks more to mechanical processes or to physical objects out in the world and how they interact with each other. Causation might be necessary (though quantum mechanics seems to suggest otherwise), but that’s not the kind of necessity I have in mind when I talk about necessary explanations.

I don’t get it. Are you talking about physical laws derived from mathematical models as necessity?

Take the example I gave in my OP. You have two brute facts: 1) the law of universal gravitation, and 2) the fact that orbiting objects move parallel to the ground. It follows logically from those two brute facts that the objects moving parallel to the ground (at the right speed, at the right height, with the right mass) must necessarily orbit. That’s where the necessity comes from–the logic. There may be some necessary causality in there somewhere, but that’s not what matters for necessary explanations.

OP is a good example of why philosophers are not in demand on jobmarket, as they like to dwell on completely irrelevant matters, on redfining and explaning already explained matters, therefore can’t make a simple corospodence.

I still don’t undersand what you’re talking about Drusuz. Where has this already been explained?

What you areally are talking about are physics and psychology, just obscured by lots of beautiful rethorics and metaphoros.
You should reduce the complexity to layman’s terms which would clarify so much.

Oh, you mean in the sense that laypeople don’t ask such questions. They already know what an “explanation” is.

But this is par for the course in philosophy. Most of philosophy just is over-analyzing what laypeople already know (but can’t explain). Either that or they don’t know and don’t care. Some of us like to make things more clear. It helps resolve disagreement.

  • if you could explain it, it wouldn’t be relevant for you to pose the topic.
  • most of this clarity are nothing but delusions, most will serve emotional answers, not intellectual.
  • it rarely helps resolve disagreements, just look at various threadts how they end up inconclusive, because people are too ignorent, because they don’t dwell in physics, nor psychology.
  • here, most cozy chatters will displa a complete lack of basic logic, to comprehend what is actually written, if it’s right or wrong. Instead they respond with total hysteria and trolls the thread. Therefore my point is that most people has not the mental aptitude for philosophy, but merely cozy chat. viewtopic.php?f=7&t=180168
  • what most will delude themselves with is clarification, when they really want is a cozy chat, for mental mastubation and navel gazing.

Relevant to what?

I have a view on what constitutes and explanation. You’re telling me that because I have some direction on this topic, I can’t start a debate about it, or that I should assume everyone will agree with me (so why bother)? What’s your point?

It will also give you some leverage in a debate. And you can’t cleanly separate the emotional from the intellectual ends.

I’ll grant you this. But even if your contender is too stubborn or too stupid to concede to your reasoning, you can still tip the balance in your favor by being more reasonable and clear in your position–if not in the eyes of your contender, in other people’s eyes, and even for your own peace of mind.

Why should that stop me from posting my thoughts?

Again, why should that stop me?

Also, although I agree the primary motive in coming up with a clearer philosophy to support any beliefs or values you already cling to is mostly for mental masturbation or cozy chat, I don’t think that means aiming for clarity is a mutually exclusive motive. For me, aiming for clarity seems to work as a tool regardless of what my ultimate motives are.

If would actually understand what i’m saying you would be superior to most people here, and you wouldn’t make this thread.

Don’t tell me what to do.