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This raises serious issues both for the “realist” (in that both the questioner and the explainer
may be making these categorical errors) and for the “postmodernist” (in that the very
interpretations brought to the question and the explanation may be based on error).
The skepticist Michael Shermer (2011) posits a form of realism (which he calls belief-
dependent realism) structured against these very errors:
“We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, emotional and psychological reasons
in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture and
society at large. After forming our beliefs, we then defend, justify and rationalize
them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments and rational explanations.
Beliefs come first; explanations for beliefs follow. … Reality exists independent of
human minds, but our understanding of it depends on the beliefs we hold at any given
time. Once we form beliefs and make commitments to them, we maintain and
reinforce them through a number of powerful cognitive biases that distort our percepts
to fit belief concepts. Among them are:
Anchoring Bias.
Relying too heavily on one reference anchor or piece of
information when making decisions.
Authority Bias.
Valuing the opinions of an authority, especially in the
evaluation of something we know little about.
Belief Bias.
Evaluating the strength of an argument based on the believability
of its conclusion.
Confirmation Bias.
Seeking and finding confirming evidence in support of
already existing beliefs and ignoring or reinterpreting disconfirming evidence.
On top of all these biases, there is the in-group bias, in which we place more value on
the beliefs of those whom we perceive to be fellow members of our group and less on
the beliefs of those from different groups.”
Thus, if “to explain” means to order the object of the explanation in a coherent way, until the
achieved order satisfies the cognitive interests of the person seeking the explanation, then the
very questions we ask and the background assumptions we make are integral in affording a
proffered “explanation” the very status of being explanatory.
“An explanation is a manifestation of order; one expects an explanation only in the
context of order. An explanation is usually needed when some facts appear random
and disconnected; one wishes then to disclose their order and relate the facts in
question to other cases that share the same order. One explains by indicating the
principle that prevails over the explanandum. Explanations address the individual case
by means of a general principle (a rule, a law or a theory) and regard the individual as
an instance of the general. Explanation demands a certain level of abstraction, it