Understanding Physics: ‘What?’, ‘Why?’, and ‘How?’

European Journal for Philosophy of Science 11 (3):1-36 (2021)
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I want to combine two hitherto largely independent research projects, scientific understanding and mechanistic explanations. Understanding is not only achieved by answering why-questions, that is, by providing scientific explanations, but also by answering what-questions, that is, by providing what I call scientific descriptions. Based on this distinction, I develop three forms of understanding: understanding-what, understanding-why, and understanding-how. I argue that understanding-how is a particularly deep form of understanding, because it is based on mechanistic explanations, which answer why something happens in virtue of what it is made of. I apply the three forms of understanding to two case studies: first, to the historical development of thermodynamics and, second, to the differences between the Clausius and the Boltzmann entropy in explaining thermodynamic processes.

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Mario Hubert
American University in Cairo


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