Three conceptions of explaining how possibly—and one reductive account

Publication Year:
Usage 257
Downloads 257
Repository URL:
Persson, Johannes
conference paper description
Philosophers of science have often favoured reductive approaches to how-possibly explanation. This article identifies three varieties of how-possibly explanation and, in so doing, helps to show that this form of explanation is a rich and interesting phenomenon in its own right. The first variety approaches “How is it possible that X?” by showing that, despite appearances, X is not ruled out by what was believed prior to X. This can sometimes be achieved by removing misunderstandings about the implications of one’s belief system (prior to observing X), but more often than not it involves a modification of this belief system so that one’s acceptance of X does not generate a contradiction. The second variety of how-possibly explanation offers a potential how-explanation of X; it is usually followed by a range of further potential how-explanations of the same phenomenon. In recent literature the factual claims implied by this sort of how-possibly explanation have been downplayed, whereas the heuristic role of mapping the space of conceptual possibilities has been emphasized. Below I will focus especially on this truth-bracketing sense of potentiality when I look at this variety of explanation more closely. The third variety of how-possibly explanation has attracted less interest. It presents a partial how-explanation of X, and typically it aims to establish the existence of a mechanism by which X could be, and was, generated without filling in all the details. It stands out as the natural alternative for advocates of ontic how-possibly explanation. This article translates divisions like those evident in Salmon’s (1984) view that explanation-concepts can be broadly divided into epistemic, modal, and ontic across to the context of how-possibly explanations. Moreover, it is argued that each of the three varieties of how-possibly explanation mentioned above has a place in science. That this is so may be especially interesting to philosophers: we are often misled by the promises made on behalf of various why-explanation accounts, and seem to have forgotten nearly everything about the fruitful diversity of how-possibly explanations.