Saturday, May 14, 2011

Explanation and Argument

I just started this book:

Already having some interesting thoughts in the first chapter, where the authors explain the difference between an argument and an explanation.  An explanation is roughly the how something is true, while an argument is roughly that something is true.  The water in her lungs explains why she's dead.  Since her heart isn't beating and she isn't breathing, we can conclude she is in fact dead (argument).

But suppose we acquire a perfect knowledge of the fundamental law(s) of nature, and suppose such law(s) are deterministic.  Wouldn't this mean that any full explanation would entail the other words, be itself a deductive argument?

Suppose explanation is solely an identification of causes.  But that isn't good enough!  Why did the causes have that effect instead of another?  Why should water in the lungs cause drowning rather than a temporarily hilarious and high-pitched voice?  The inductive answer cites numerous examples of other dead women with water-filled lungs.  But is science satisfied with identifying some causes and citing some statistics?

It seems to me that science strives for the full explanation: the one that entails.  But much has been said about whether this is feasible or even coherent.

Thought experiment: you have a room full of marbles and a water gun.  You run around the room blasting water at the marbles, causing them to roll about and bang together.  Now suppose we scientists can't detect you or your water gun; all we can observe are the moving marbles.  And we rudely showed up late to watch this marble shooting frenzy.  Can we fully explain the final position of the marbles?


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