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Explanations: Styles of Explanation in Science

Science and Human Dimension 1999

We all crave explanations, and seek answers to the question “why”. But what does explanation actually give us? How differently do a philosopher and a physicist view an explanation? What is the precise nature of explanation? We brought together philosophers and scientists, a mathematician, and a social anthropologist to discuss why explanations work, why they vary between disciplines, periods, and cultures, and to discover whether they have any necessary boundaries. The issues engaged the keen interest of our media visitors, for it is in journalism that the notion of an explanation is often misused or misunderstood.

The speakers included:
  • Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees on Explaining the Universe
  • Peter Atkins on Ponderable Matter
  • Colin McGinn on What it is not like to be a brain
  • Peter Lipton on What is a good explanation
  • Jack Goody on Explanation in Social Anthropology
  • Juliet Mitchell on Explanation in Freud
  • David Hanke on Explanation in Darwin

There was a tendency, it was agreed, for physics to attempt to pull rank on its rival disciplines. Steven Weinberg responded to this allegation by suggesting that some sciences can claim a status in explanations, which although not superior, is distinctive. “If you go on asking why, why, why?” he said, “you end up with a fundamental question either in particle physics or cosmology.” Sir Martin Rees argued that we seek a “final theory” not because the rest of science (or even the rest of physics) depends on it, but because it engages with deep aspects of reality.

The proceedings are published in Explanations: Styles of Explanation in Science edited by John Cornwell, Oxford University Press, 2004.