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Introduction: Thoughts on Explanation
Michael Lissack and Abraham Graber
This is a book about explanation. Its origins lie in the all too frequent observation that our
way of thinking often does not match the world. Such mismatches give rise to ambiguity and
uncertainty. The ambiguity, in turn, acts as both a constraint on possible actions (including
the action of reliable prediction) and the desire to “explain” what is going on. Explanation is
the name for the process we use to answer the questions raised by observed ambiguities.
Explanation is also the name for the product of such processes. This process/product
divergence is merely a hint of the many conflicting approaches to be found in the
contemporary understanding of explanation. This book is the first in decades to attempt to
bring these conflicting approaches together and to offer a compelling narrative to explore
how those conflicts can converge.
Such convergence is important because explanation is important. Often we work with
an idiosyncratic conception of explanation – a conception that may not match those of our
neighbors. In this dissonance lie both potential gain and potential trauma. The lack of an
explanation often leads to either creative inquiry or to troubling confrontations between
holders of differing beliefs. Such occurrences may be found even when some believe that an
explanation has been forthcoming – an “explanation” that others find “explains nothing.”
Explanations are central to our way of navigating the world. Some explanations
appear in the everyday life of the average person. Thus, the best explanation of the fact that
there is dog food all over the kitchen floor is that, while we were away at work, Fido got into
the food. Other explanations are more rarified. For example, one might explain the blueness
of the sky in terms of the comparatively long wavelength of blue light and the comparative
predilection of longer wavelengths to disperse when passing through the atmosphere. There
are important similarities and differences between these two sketches of explanation.
Contemporary philosophy is characterized by a fascination with explanation. The
philosophical literature on explanation is rapidly expanding; the philosophical literature that
attempts to use explanations is vast. This fascination with explanation appears to correspond
with the contemporary trend towards naturalized philosophy. More and more, philosophers
are coming to take their cues from the sciences. Thus, philosophers are increasingly
expending energy on studying the methods and results of the sciences. Explanation appears to
be central to the practice of actual scientists; a brief glance at scientific practice suggests that
scientists are in the business of offering explanations.
This focus on scientific practice, however, overlooks an important set of practitioners
who also rely heavily on explanation. Explanation is important for managers, consultants,
entrepreneurs, investors, and so on. The parallels between the work of these practitioners and
the work of scientists is notable. Just as scientists construct explanations to make sense of
observed phenomena, practitioners create explanations to make sense of the world around
them. Furthermore, just as scientists use accepted explanations to make the world respond as
they want it to, practitioners rely on explanation to navigate the complicated social, financial,