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Michael Lissack and Abraham Graber
In May 2013, a motley collection of academics, scientists, and consultants assembled in Paris
to discuss what it means to “explain” – what are the various “modes of explanation.” This
text attempts to capture and expand on the vigorous discussion that took place. Our hope is
that it will help both practitioners and philosophers alike to develop new perspectives on
what the very idea of an “explanation” can mean for them and their work.
We choose the plural – perspectives – intentionally. Research on the idea of an
“explanation” is not conducted within a fixed field with proven theorems and accepted truths.
Rather, such research is conducted by a community of individuals with overlapping interests
and a nagging feeling that some deeper patterns underlie those interests. As the reader will
see, participants in the workshop have very different views concerning how, and in some
cases whether, context, contingency, and circumstance should be applied to an understanding
of what constitutes an explanation, never mind a “good” explanation. This book will not
provide definitive answers. Instead, it will raise many questions, the asking of which may be
more valuable than reading any how-to book or monograph that purports to offer the very
answers we omit.
In editing this book, we have tried to maintain the structure, content, and tone of the
conversation that took place in Paris. The presentations and debates were taped and
transcribed. Since the initial presentation, each of the speakers has had the opportunity to
revise and extend his or her remarks. Some of the authors chose to contribute portions of
subsequent presentations, especially those geared to a more general rather than a
philosophical audience. To complement these, in a handful of cases, we have added
particularly relevant presentations or writings by individuals who could not join us in Paris.
Our approach to gathering the materials for this book and organizing the workshop
was to seek out diversity and encourage debate. A time-tested principle from cybernetics, one
of the precursors of complexity research, made us confident that diversity was a necessity. It
is believed in most cases that simple perception is “good enough.” Nevertheless, simple
perceptions fail adequately to capture the import of context or situation. They are poor at
reflecting more than single-order effects (where A leads to B). By relying on common sense,
we are in effect relying on the assumption that simple perceptions are adequate for the task or
judgment at hand. But are they?
Jay Forrester has noted: “While most people understand first-order effects, few deal
well with second- and third-order effects. Unfortunately, virtually everything interesting lies
in fourth-order effects and beyond.” (Stern and Deimler, 2006)
When simple perceptions are inadequate, then the need for tools that enable better
access to the “what, who, and how much” that one needs to know becomes painfully obvious.
Expanding on common sense – either in the form of developing better tools for simple
perceptions, better methods for simplifying complex perceptions, or better approaches for
making judgments based on these simple perceptions – just will not help in that portion of the
world where “success” lies in developing an understanding of the boundaries, constraints,