The Ontic Account of Scientific Explanation

In Marie I. Kaiser, Oliver R. Scholz, Daniel Plenge & Andreas Hüttemann (eds.), Explanation in the Special Sciences: The Case of Biology and History. Springer Verlag. pp. 27-52 (2014)
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According to one large family of views, scientific explanations explain a phenomenon (such as an event or a regularity) by subsuming it under a general representation, model, prototype, or schema (see Bechtel, W., & Abrahamsen, A. (2005). Explanation: A mechanist alternative. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 36(2), 421–441; Churchland, P. M. (1989). A neurocomputational perspective: The nature of mind and the structure of science. Cambridge: MIT Press; Darden (2006); Hempel, C. G. (1965). Aspects of scientific explanation. In C. G. Hempel (Ed.), Aspects of scientific explanation (pp. 331–496). New York: Free Press; Kitcher (1989); Machamer, P., Darden, L., & Craver, C. F. (2000). Thinking about mechanisms. Philosophy of Science, 67(1), 1–25). My concern is with the minimal suggestion that an adequate philosophical theory of scientific explanation can limit its attention to the format or structure with which theories are represented. The representational subsumption view is a plausible hypothesis about the psychology of understanding. It is also a plausible claim about how scientists present their knowledge to the world. However, one cannot address the central questions for a philosophical theory of scientific explanation without turning one’s attention from the structure of representations to the basic commitments about the worldly structures that plausibly count as explanatory. A philosophical theory of scientific explanation should achieve two goals. The first is explanatory demarcation. It should show how explanation relates with other scientific achievements, such as control, description, measurement, prediction, and taxonomy. The second is explanatory normativity. It should say when putative explanations succeed and fail. One cannot achieve these goals without undertaking commitments about the kinds of ontic structures that plausibly count as explanatory. Representations convey explanatory information about a phenomenon when and only when they describe the ontic explanations for those phenomena.

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Carl F. Craver
Washington University in St. Louis


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