Complements, not competitors: causal and mathematical explanations

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Andersen, Holly
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A finer-grained delineation of a given explanandum reveals a nexus of closely related causal and non-causal explanations, complementing one another in ways that yield further explanatory traction on the phenomenon in question. By taking a narrower construal of what counts as a causal explanation, a new class of distinctively mathematical explanations pops into focus; Lange’s ([2013]) characterization of distinctively mathematical explanations can be extended to cover these. This new class of distinctively mathematical explanations is illustrated with the Lotka-Volterra equations. There are at least two distinct ways those equations might hold of a system, one of which yields straightforwardly causal explanations, but the other of which yields explanations that are distinctively mathematical in terms of nomological strength. In the first, one first picks out a system or class of systems, finds that the equations hold in a causal-explanatory way; in the second, one starts with the equations and explanations that must apply to any system of which the equations hold, and only then turns to the world to see of what, if any, systems it does in fact hold. Using this new way in which a model might hold of a system, I highlight four specific avenues by which causal and non-causal explanations can complement one another.