Recently[1] I’ve been doing some reading on (amoung other things) Leibnizian Cosmological Arguments and the Principle of Sufficient Reason. One thing that’s involved in these arguments is the idea of an “explanation”. We generally have a firm grasp or intuition of whether something is an explanation for some fact or not. Consider the following statements involving explanations:

  1. John sent his children to school A rather than school B because school A has good sports facilities
  2. The kettle is boiling because John turned it on and it was working properly
  3. The kettle is boiling because the heat of the flame is being conducted via the copper bottom of the kettle to the water, increasing the kinetic energy of the water molecules, such that they vibrate so violently that they break the surface tension of the water and are thrown off in the form of steam[2]
  4. We die because the process of natural selection has selected organisms that die over the course of the earth’s evolutionary history

In each of the above cases, the explanation is italicised and the explanandum (the fact to be explained) comes before the “because”. Cases (1) and (2) involve personal or libertarian explanations, case (3) involves a scientific explanation and case (4) an evolutionary explanation (we’ll see later why such evolutionary explanations, including case (4), often fail to explain their explanandum).

Now, as far as I can tell, no-one has been able to give a complete reductive analysis[3] of explanations. Nonetheless, we know a number of things about explanations; two of which I wish to share here.

1. Explanations can be non-entailing

An explanation entails its explanadum if it is impossible for the facts in the explanation to be true and not the facts in the explanadum. Consider example (2) above: it is not possible for the facts John has turned the kettle on and the kettle is working properly to be true without the kettle is boiling following. Simply put, the facts in the explanation entail the facts in the explanadum. We can see another example of this in (3).

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