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Foundations of Science


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The concept of explanation is central to scientific practice. However, scientists explain phenomena in very different ways. That is, there are many different kinds of explanation; e.g. causal, mechanistic, statistical, or equilibrium explanations. In light of the myriad kinds of explanation identified in the literature, most philosophers of science have adopted some kind of explanatory pluralism. While pluralism about explanation seems plausible, it faces a dilemma (Pincock in: Reutlinger A, Saatsi J (eds) Explanation beyond causation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 39–56, 2018). Either there is nothing that unifies all instances of scientific explanation that makes them count as explanations, or there is some set of unifying features, which seems incompatible with explanatory pluralism. Different philosophers have adopted different horns of this dilemma. Some argue that no unified account of explanation is possible (Morrison in Reconstructing reality, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015). Others suggest that there is a set of necessary features that can unify all explanations under a single account (Potochnik in Idealization and the aims of science, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2017; Reutlinger in Reutlinger A, Saatsi J (eds) Explanation beyond causation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 74–95, 2018; Strevens in Depth: an account of scientific explanation, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2008). In this paper, we argue that none of the features identified by existing accounts of explanation are necessary for all explanations. However, we argue that a unified account can still be provided that accommodates pluralism. This can be accomplished, we argue, by reconceiving of scientific explanation as a cluster concept: there are multiple subsets of features that are sufficient for providing an explanation, but no single feature is necessary for all explanations. Reconceiving of explanation as a cluster concept not only accounts for the diversity of kinds of explanations, but also accounts for the widespread disagreement in the explanation literature and enables explanatory pluralism to avoid Pincock’s dilemma.


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