Explanation At Its Best

Sunday, September 29, 2019

What Is It

In both everyday life and science, we often feel the pull of simpler, more elegant, or more beautiful explanations. For example, you notice the street is wet and infer the best explanation is that it rained earlier. But are we justified in assuming these tidy explanations are most likely to be true? What makes an explanation “simple” or “elegant” in the first place? And can the “loveliness” of an explanation ever be a good guide to its “likeliness”? Josh and Ken try to explain things with Princeton University psychologist Tania Lombrozo, co-editor of Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy.

Comments (3)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, September 8, 2019 -- 11:15 AM

In order to 'make

In order to 'make explanations'; attain understandings; make judgments (as judges and hearing officers do); and generally assess the why(s); wherefore(s) and what-the-hell-really-happened of many scenarios, we use several primary kinds of algorithmic vehicles: adductive; inductive; and deductive reasoning. Adducing facts, as to the likelihood of one scenario being more probable than another, is certainly the least burdensome and among the 'simpler', 'elegant' means of arriving at a just (maybe) and equitable (ditto) outcome. Administrative law judges (I used to be one of those, although I was given the poor man's title: hearing officer) rely on background laws, policies and case law precedents, in order to-as simply and elegantly as possible-arrived at holdings on such matters. They don't ordinarily use the terms simple or elegant. Don't have to. They may be absolutely correct in their assessments of things, but may still have their decisions overturned at a higher level. Additionally, their original holding(s) may be restored at a still higher level of appeal (i.e., the court system itself). Induction and deduction are slightly different, but I won't go into that. Reduction is yet another means-but, it engenders controversy, as philosophers know full well. There are, then, different ways to skin the cat, and adductive arguments remain a gentleman's Damocles' Sword---Good luck with Ms. Lombrozo, guys!

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, September 18, 2019 -- 11:52 AM

In reading Wilfrid Sellars'

In reading Wilfrid Sellars' SCIENCE AND METAPHYSICS (Humanities Press, 1968), I came upon remarks concerning induction and law-like statements (section 7, page 118)., Beginning with: "In philosophy, one thing always leads to another, and it is tempting, at this point, to embark on an extended discussion of induction." He continues talking about 'law-like' statements; S-assertibility; semantics and so on. To conclude the paragraph-long section, he writes: ..."to understand the point of inductive reasoning one must understand the distinctive functions of matter-of-factual statements belonging to the level below that of law-like statements." So, it would seem that Sellars recognizes the need for a healthy command of language, when it comes to seeing how things hanging together form a (the?) foundation for effective, convincing communication. I personally have always found this helpful, because no matter who one's argument is directed to, an understandable vocabulary (whether written or spoken) is, as Sellars implies, the epitome of "Categorical Reasonableness".
Put more elegantly: an audience cannot grasp an explanation which is abstract; obscure or academically obfuscatory. Just sayin'...

(For those interested in the long version of Sellars' quip regarding philosophy helping us see how things hang together, see III of Chapter VI, section 19. on page 158 of this rather difficult book. That Sellars was an analytical philosopher is obvious. For anyone not up to the challenge, ignore this footnote.)

RepoMan05's picture


Friday, October 4, 2019 -- 5:47 PM

The best explanations cause

The best explanations cause the reader or listener to actually learn something they either didnt know or ever considered; either in conjunction with something else they either knew or didn't or on its own. It's not whether or not your explanation was convincing. If your explanation was convincing or not is always seperate of its total possible value. You can teach far more than you're supposedly explaining and still have something valuable. What then does "best" mean?