What Does Explanation even Mean?

Take Pruss’ definition of the principle of sufficient reason: every contingent fact has an explanation.  Now, given my last post on showing what a term means, we can use the principle of sufficient reason as a test case.  More specifically, we will look at the word explanation.

So explanation has been taken to be synonymous with cause.  Thus: every contingent fact has a cause.  If that is true, then since libertarian free choices, they violate the principle of sufficient reason.  However, it seems like my libertarian choice really is explained by the following facts: I exist, I have libertarian freedom, and I have certain reasons to make the choice I do.  And so a casewise view of explaining a term would show that definition of “explanation” to be false.  Moreover, the same sort of thing also seems to hold for certain interpretations of quantum mechanics.

So what we have done here is start off with a definition and then used real life examples to see if that definition works.  This is the strategy I suggested in the post above.  The final part of the strategy is to give a new definition of the term.  Maybe it is this: a contingent fact is explained if given the facts that are proposed as the explanation of the fact trying to be explained, it is no longer seen as mysterious how the fact that is trying to be explained obtains.

Ever the Twain Shall Meet

There are two broad approaches for showing what a technical term means.

The first is to give an explicit definition of the term.  The problem here is that once the definition is given, the proponent will tend to reject obvious counterexamples because they do not fit the definition.  If the person defining the term is trying to remain consistent in seeking for a true definition though, this will often lead to Chisholming.  Therefore, this approach must be wary of becoming too tied to one’s definition.

The second is the casewise approach.  Namely, we might not be able to give a definition of a term, but we can certainly point to examples where that term applies and thus learn more about the term.  The problem with this approach is that the person taking this line could simply go their merry way and never try to synthesize the information.  To avoid this, then, it seems that the person who uses the casewise approach should attempt to give a definition once a sufficient number of diverse examples have been used.

We now see how the term can come together.  We have some vague notions of how a term is defined, but counterexamples are often given to our current definition.  Thus, if we start to think about the things to which the concept applies, we start to adjust our definition. However, the very fact that we are adjusting our definition shows that we are still trying to define the term, but this definition is thoroughly grounded in what the concept actually applies to. Therefore, a mix of the two approaches seems to be the best way of elucidating terms and concepts.

The next post will give an example of this procedure.