Information and explanation: an inconsistent triad and solution

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Abstract
An important strand in philosophy of science takes scientific explanation to consist in the conveyance of some kind of information. Here I argue that this idea is also implicit in some core arguments of mechanists, some of whom are proponents of an ontic conception of explanation that might be thought inconsistent with it. However, informational accounts seem to conflict with some lay and scientific commonsense judgments and a central goal of the theory of explanation, because information is relative to the background knowledge of agents. Sometimes we make lay judgments about whether a model is an explanation simpliciter, not just an explanation relative to some particular agent. And as philosophers of explanation, we would like a philosophical account to tell us when a model is an explanation simpliciter, not just when a model is an explanation relative to some particular agent. Thus, even if one’s account of explanation is not concerned with explanation qua communicative or speech act, the account’s reliance on the concept of information generates a prima facie conflict between the claims that 1) explanation is the conveyance of information, 2) information is relative to the background knowledge of an agent, and 3) some models are explanations not relative to the background knowledge of any particular agent. I sketch a solution to this puzzle by distinguishing informationally what I call “explanation simpliciter” from what I call “explanation-to,” relativizing the latter to an individual’s background knowledge and the former to what I call “total scientific background knowledge”.
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Archival date: 2021-02-26
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