The role of explanation in science

In general, when theories are easily variable in the sense I have described, experimental testing is almost useless for correcting their errors. I call such theories bad explanations. Being proved wrong by experiment, and changing the theories to other bad explanations, does not get their holders one jot closer to the truth.

Because explanation plays this central role in science, and because testability is of little use in the case of bad explan­ations, I myself prefer to call myths, superstitions and similar theories unscientilic even when they make testable predic­tions. But it does not matter what terminology you use, so long as it does not lead you to conclude that there is something worthwhile about the Persephone myth, or the prophet’s apocalyptic theory or the gamblers delusion, just because it is testable. Nor is a person capable of making progress merely by virtue of being willing to drop a theory when it is refuted: one must also be seeking a better explanation of the relevant phenomena. That is the scientific frame of mind. …

The quest for good explanations is, I believe, the basic regulating principle not only of science, but of the Enlightenment generally. It is the feature that distinguishes those approaches to knowledge from all others, and it implies all those other conditions for scientific progress I have discussed: It trivially implies that prediction alone is insufficient. Somewhat less trivially, it leads to the rejection of authority, because if we adopt a theory on authority, that means that we would also have accepted a range of different theories on authority. And hence it also implies the need for a tradition of criticism. It also implies a methodological rule – a criterion for reality – namely that we should conclude that a particular thing is real if and only if it figures in our best explanation of something. [22-3]

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  1. […] in der Wissenschaft also nach Theorien, die wahr sind und für interessante Phänomene der Welt gute Erklärungen liefern – und die zu besserem Wissen (also Wissenszuwachs) führen. Dafür müssen die Theorien […]

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