September 22, 2010

The Limit of Explanation

From Anthropoetics:
The Limit of Explanation: Following the "Why" to its Epistemological Terminus
By Marina Ludwigs

In this essay I will examine the theory and praxis of explanation and demonstrate the unsustainable character of its claims and underlying presuppositions. My involvement in this project stemmed originally from my interest in contributing to a development of a formal methodology in the humanities. The methodology of the sciences is well established today and is based on a set of accepted tenets that serve as guidelines in scientists’ pursuit of theories. As Michael Ruse puts it:

Surveying science and the history of science today, one thing stands out: science involves a search for order. More specifically, science looks for unbroken, blind, natural regularities (laws). Things in the world do not happen in just any old way. They follow set paths, and science tries to capture this fact. Bodies of science, therefore, known variously as ‘theories’ or ‘paradigms’ or ‘sets of models’ are collections of laws (PS 39).

Among the governing principles, scientists single out explanation, prediction, testability, and non-falsifiability as the most salient. Explanation usually comes first, as nearly all scientific quests start as attempts to explain physical phenomena. It has a symmetrical facet--that of prediction. In other words, to understand an empirical phenomenon from a scientific point of view means to have cognizance of a certain law-like physical regularity such that the phenomenon can both be explained and predicted. The distinction between the two activities bears the pragmatic character of what the questioner knows first: that the phenomenon has already occurred--and thus he has to furnish its explanation--or that necessary antecedent conditions obtain--in which case, he can deduce its occurrence. Thus the sight of a baseball flying in the direction of a window makes me anticipate the sound of shattered glass coming closely on its heels, while if I see and hear a window being broken, I immediately start looking for its human or natural source (my familiarity with this phenomenon would include the implicit knowledge of the law of the conservation of momentum and the low shock-resistance of glass).
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