On superior explanations

If a theory about observable events is untestable – that is, if no possible observation would rule it out – then it cannot by itself explain why those events happen in the way they are observed to and not in some other way. For example, the ‘angel’ theory of planetary motion is untestable because no matter how planets moved, that motion could be attributed to angels; therefore the angel theory cannot explain the particular motions that we see, unless it is supplemented by an independent theory of how angels move. That is why there is a methodological rule in science which says that once an experimentally testable theory has passed the appropriate tests, any less testable rival theories about the same phe­nomena are summarily rejected, for their explanations are bound to be inferior. This rule is often cited as distinguishing science from other types of knowledge-creation. But if we take the view that science is about explanations, we see that this rule is really a special case of something that applies naturally to all problem-solving: theories that are capable of giving more detailed explanations are automatically preferred. They are preferred for two reasons. One is that a theory that ‘sticks its neck out’ by being more specific about more phenomena opens up itself and its rivals to more forms of criticism, and therefore has more chance of taking the problem-solving process forward. The second is simply that, if such a theory survives the criticism, it leaves less unexplained – which is the object of the exercise. [66]

1 comment

  1. One more argument for the continuousness of science with other evidence-based, truth-directed activities, such as plumbing.

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