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Explaining Explanation

by D.R. Khashaba

The ambiguity of the notion of explanation is responsible for much of the failure of understanding characterizing controversies between scientists and philosophers. Distinguishing clearly the various senses in which the verb 'to explain' and the noun 'explanation' are used or could be used goes a long way if not towards settlement then at least towards a clearer understanding of the issues involved in many such controversies. In this note I will try to do something in that direction.

In what ways do we seek explanation or speak of explanation? Leaving aside the case of 'explaining' a difficult piece of writing, where we may more properly speak of elucidating, clarifying, or simplifying, we can separate the other instances into two distinct classes: the class of cases where we seek to explain how and the class of cases where we seek to explain why. In my opinion, these are radically different and it is vitally important to be clear in our minds about the distinction since confusion between the two different meanings of explanation is responsible for much of the misunderstandings we encounter in dealing with scientific and philosophical questions and in discussing the relation between science and philosophy.

Let us look at some examples of questions leading to 'how-explanations' on the one hand and to 'why-explanations' on the other hand and try to see what kind of 'understanding' each of these classes yields: for the same ambiguity that envelops the term 'explanation' also envelops the term 'understanding' with similarly unfortunate consequences.

Recently physicists have been fighting among themselves about string theory[1]. For some two decades now prominent physicians have been promising to explain the universe in a limited number of complex equations. Some of them are now saying that all efforts in that direction have ended in a cul-de-sac. But I don't think that these any more than the ones who remain sanguine about the prospects of the theory have realized in what way the idea is basically flawed. (I am not qualified to discuss the debate between the two parties. I speak as a complete outsider.) They have not rid themselves of the illusion that it is theoretically possible to discover a single formula or group of formulae that will 'explain' everything. This is basically the same old dream of the Pythagoreans who, having discovered that the musical scale could be expressed in a mathematical formula, thought that numbers could yield the final explanation of everything.

Both Newton and Einstein were wiser than to think that they had explained anything by their wonderful equations. They knew that their equations were tools for managing the phenomena of the natural world but could explain nothing.

In the Principia Newton wrote: 'Hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypotheses.' Again, in a letter to Bentley he wrote: 'That gravity should be innate, inherent, and essential to matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum... seems to me a great absurdity.'[2]

It is the same story with neuroscientists and psychologists and pundits of the new-fangled theory of mind. They can (a) give descriptions of observed phenomena and processes and (b) produce theories that range observed phenomena in patterns that have intrinsic intelligibility. That is all objective science and all theory can do. The mystery, the reality, underlying the phenomenal processes and happenings, can only be grasped in the immediacy of living experience. Mind is just my inner reality; irreducible, unexplainable — it cannot be spirited away.

Professor Pluhar, in the Introduction to his translation of Kant's Critique of Judgment[3] writes, 'John Locke [1632-1704] argued for the existence of a perfect God on the ground that the self-evident existence of oneself, as a mind capable of perception and knowledge (which cannot arise from mere matter), presupposes such a God. For "whatever is first of all things must necessarily contain in it, and actually have, at least, all the perfections that can ever after exist...".'

This is an aspect of Locke's thought that seems to have been overlooked, forgotten, willfully dumped away, or 'generously' excused by Empiricists, who make Locke the dean of their materialism. Nowadays evolution is seen as sufficient to explain all novelty. Nobody stops to consider that evolution may tell us in what manner, by what steps, things have come about, but it does not tell us how that was possible. They do not consider that the scientific study of evolution may give us information but cannot give us intelligibility.

For instance, evolutionists have attempted to 'explain' the beauty of bird-song as an evolutionary trait that helps survival. Granted that the beauty of the song of the male bird attracts the female and so helps reproduction. But what makes the female bird respond to the beauty in the song of the male? Let us say that the female's response to the more appealing song ensures mating and consequently the survival of the species. The question remains: What makes the song appealing? Perhaps we have to rest with the answer that the female bird just loves the melodious sound. But even if we say that the sounds of the song produce physical vibrations in the female that trigger certain chemical processes, etc., etc., we can still ask, what makes the song beautiful to us? What is the attraction of the skylark to a Shelley or of the nightingale to a Keats? The song is beautiful and that's that. We cannot go beyond Socrates' 'foolish', 'It is by Beauty that all beautiful things are beautiful.' This is no answer and yet it is the only answer that gives us understanding since it is the answer that puts us face to face with the idea of Beauty as an ultimate mystery.

Further in the Introduction to Kant's third Critique, Professor Pluhar writes that Kant said that 'it is inconsistent for Locke, as an empiricist, to argue to the existence of something beyond the bounds of all experience.' I think that Kant's criticism, though right in principle, does not do Locke full justice. Locke may have been guilty of thinking that his reasoning related to an existence 'beyond the bounds of all experience', but his reasoning had a profounder significance as the postulation of a ground for the intelligibility of experience. Hume's radicalization of Locke's position, by revealing the inadequacy of empiricism when taken as a complete theory of knowledge, called forth Kant's critical solution. But Locke's 'inconsistent' position was richer in insight.

It's the same with the ultimate mystery of the universe. The Big Bang may be described, may perhaps be captured in reflections of the remotest constellations or whatever, but all that will not tell us what it was that banged in the first place; and even if the Bang is reduced to an insubstantial equation, as all matter seems to have been reduced, that will only put us face to face with the ultimate mystery of Being, quizzing us with the ultimate question: Why should there have been anything rather than nothing?

At this point I have to address a possible perversion of my position. When I seek to limit the jurisdiction of science, it is not in the interest of theology or religion. Theologians can vie with the best of scientists in rationality and consistency of thought. Their sin is the hubris of believing that they possess the truth. It is a sin that many scientists share with them; but scientists are more fortunate in that their object of study, the observable world, has a habit of reminding the scientists that she is greater than their theories, while the hidden object of the theologians does not show any interest in correcting their errors.

Science, dealing with the world as objective, as external to the mind, as given, can work on nature, but cannot - in Kantian language - approach the noumenal. The mind, in itself and by itself, can examine its own ideas, disentangle them, clarify them: that is the realm of philosophy proper; it cannot yield facts of the objective world that can be discovered, observed, or verified. As I have been repeatedly affirming in my writings: Philosophy does not give us truth but gives us meaningfulness. On the other hand, science gives us facts, gives us truth, but no understanding.

Science and philosophy came into the world as Siamese twins, but they have to be separated if either is not to hinder and corrupt the other. It is in the best interest of both science and philosophy for scientists and philosophers to realize that theirs are two domains that are radically distinct, and that just as philosophy, by reasoning alone, cannot answer questions that are proper to science - questions that relate to the actual world - so also science, by the methods of science, cannot find answers to questions proper to philosophy, questions relating to meaning and value and the ultimate why.

Philosophical understanding proper can only be defined by Socrates' principle of philosophical ignorance: philosophical understanding is radically distinct from knowledge: we can only have philosophical understanding when, in relation to the question for which we seek philosophical understanding, we renounce any claim to knowledge. This does not mean that in philosophical understanding we are condemned to wander in a haze of mystic obscurity. What it means is that to enjoy a life endowed with meaningfulness, we have to seek that meaningfulness in ideas creatively engendered by the mind, within the mind. These ideas shed meaning on the objective givennesses of experience, but they do not have their existence in the objective world.

So, if we are to speak of explanation in connection with both science and philosophy, let us say that science explains how while philosophy explains why. Let us further say that only science gives us knowledge: scientists will love that, but let them then accept also the rejoinder: only philosophy gives us understanding.


1. Here are a few links to recent discussions:,,23114-2214707,00.html,,1890366,00.html

2. Preserved Smith The Enlightenment 1687-1776, 1934, ch. 2, 'Newtonian Science', p. 47.

3. Immanuel Kant Critique of Judgment, translated, with an Introduction, by Werner S. Pluhar, 1987, p. lxxiv.

© D.R. Khashaba 2006


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