Happy new year everyone! I hope everyone can find a time to be happy this year, at some point. Last time, I began the topic of explanation vs. excuse. I do not have an explanation for why I received no comments, but that’s what happened.
More on Explanations and Excuses
This time I will start by going through the questions I proposed and make a few remarks about each. (I will not necessarily answer all the questions I posed.) Please refer to the previous column for the statement of each.
- Computational (or at least calculational) explanations are interesting because it is unclear what the “stuff” involved is. What about the number -1 is involved? Arguably nothing. Some people claim that a calculator does not calculate. One would have to appeal to the electrical properties of the materials and such here to propose an explanation. This seems to have the consequence that what the calculator does and what I do (assume a slightly more involved example) are different. This is the origin of the view in the philosophy of mind called functionalism: that some explanations can involve, as the jargon has it, multiple realizability.
2. Top-down explanations seem to be routinely used in chemistry, when shapes of molecules are appealed to explain why one reaction rather than another takes place in larger quantities. They also seem to occur in social or mixed sciences when, for example, the “madness of crowds” is invoked. The problem: Are these “dispensable”? And even if they were, does that indicate that the explanations are incorrect, or just that there are various alternatives. This is one of the debates concerning the notion of reductionism.
3. The example, as described, is an example of inertial motion. However, it is presumably an idealization, because some forces have seemingly infinite range. As for the question about whether inertial motion can be appealed to in an explanation, consider the following: In the rest frame of the body, the velocity of a body in inertial motion is zero. So is it changing at all? If it is not, is there anything to explain? Or is a “change of zero” a change? This sort of question is dealt with in the events literature, where general metaphysics meets philosophy of science.
4. This is a very important question about the metaphysics of computation, one that we should think about in the context of the debates over artificial neural networks. Even after years working in software I at least find it no easier to answer than when I was working in philosophy and logic. Help!
5. This case is interesting for two reasons. One concerns what is subject to explanation. Presumably one cannot explain something that does not in fact happen. Yet we know a lot of our views are at best approximately true, so we explain things that we understand imperfectly. Otherwise, there no explanations at all. This latter view seems drastic, but has been taken up by those in epistemology who hold that we have no knowledge. The other concern is about what can be invoked to create an explanation. Penrose’s discussion does involve something that exists (unlike, say, an appeal to the Loch Ness monster). But the mechanism proposed has been regarded by many as dubious. It is also debatable as a mechanism, in the sense that it does not appeal to anything specific in neurons, nor does it appeal to a way in which these could function in the way proposed.
6. This case, though, directly involves psychology and the appeal to suggestion. Some people think that explanations in psychology and the social science must not appeal to mechanisms but understanding and “putting oneself in another’s shoes.” This operation, often named using the German word “verstehen,” is said by some of its practitioners to be a rival idea. I think this is a bit of a false dichotomy. Empathy, appeal to common humanity, etc., can generate hypotheses as to why someone acts the way they do, but it is not a guarantee of their truth, nor does it necessarily “end the story.”
There would be, presumably, other things one can say to deepen the explanation. Is this necessary? Not always, but when it is and when it is not is an interesting open question. Sometimes the maxim “In order to comprehend, one must be comprehensive” applies, when the appeal to ordinary understanding may not be enough.
To finish off this time, I will return briefly to the other half of my topic: excuses. I suggest to the reader the following exercise: Take each of the cases and work each into an excuse that you would regard as morally acceptable, and each into an excuse that you would not. Note carefully what moral notions you appeal to. For many philosophers this is the important part of the free will debate. It is better phrased as “When and how do creatures such as we have moral responsibility?”
I will help you on your journey by pointing out that there are attempts to do this sort of exercise that are functionalist. Despite my being very sympathetic to functionalism, I found them unconvincing. (My editor seems to remove my references, so write me a comment if you want the literature reference here!) I think, 20 odd years later, that this is because a functionalist explanation needs just a bit of mechanism. In particular, it needs computational properties or other details.