Much recent work on explanation in the interventionist tradition emphasizes the explanatory value of stable causal generalizations—i.e., causal generalizations that remain true in a wide range of background circumstances. We argue that two separate explanatory virtues are lumped together under the heading of `stability’. We call these two virtues breadth and guidancerespectively. In our view, these two virtues are importantly distinct, but this fact is neglected or at least under-appreciated in the literature on stability. We argue that an adequate theory of explanatory goodness should recognize breadth and guidance as distinct virtues, as breadth and guidance track different ideals of explanation, satisfy different cognitive and pragmatic ends, and play different theoretical roles in (for example) helping us understand the explanatory value of mechanisms. Thus keeping track of the distinction between these two forms of stability yields a more accurate and perspicuous picture of the role that stability considerations play in explanation.
Awe has traditionally been considered a religious or spiritual emotion, yet scientists often report that awe motivates them to answer questions about the natural world, and to do so in naturalistic terms. Indeed, awe may be closely related to scientific discovery and theoretical advance. Awe is typically triggered by something vast (either literally or metaphorically) and initiates processes of accommodation, in which existing mental schemas are revised to make sense of the awe‐inspiring stimuli. This process of accommodation is essential for the kind of belief revision that characterizes scientific reasoning and theory change. Across six studies, we find that the tendency to experience awe is positively associated with scientific thinking, and that this association is not shared by other positive emotions. Specifically, we show that the disposition to experience awe predicts a more accurate understanding of how science works, rejection of creationism, and rejection of unwarranted teleological explanations more broadly.
Young children often endorse explanations of the natural world that appeal to functions or purpose—for example, that rocks are pointy so animals can scratch on them. By contrast, most Western-educated adults reject such explanations. What accounts for this change? We investigated 4- to 5-year-old children’s ability to generalize the form of an explanation from examples by presenting them with novel teleological explanations, novel mechanistic explanations, or no explanations for 5 nonliving natural objects. We then asked children to explain novel instances of the same objects and novel kinds of objects. We found that children were able to learn and generalize explanations of both types, suggesting an ability to draw generalizations over the form of an explanation. We also found that teleological and mechanistic explanations were learned and generalized equally well, suggesting that if a domain-general teleological bias exists, it does not manifest as a bias in learning or generalization.
Our goal in this paper is to experimentally investigate whether folk conceptions of explanation are psychologistic. In particular, are people more likely to classify speech acts as explanations when they cause understanding in their recipient? The empirical evidence that we present suggests this is so. Using the side-effect effect as a marker of mental state ascriptions, we argue that lay judgments of explanatory status are mediated by judgments of a speaker’s and/or audience’s mental states. First, we show that attributions of both understanding and explanation exhibit a side-effect effect. Next, we show that when the speaker’s and audience’s level of understanding is stipulated, the explanation side-effect effect goes away entirely. These results not only extend the side-effect effect to attributions of understanding, they also suggest that attributions of explanation exhibit a side-effect effect because they depend upon attributions of understanding, supporting the idea that folk conceptions of explanation are psychologistic.
As a strategy for exploring the relationship between understanding and knowledge, we consider whether epistemic luck – which is typically thought to undermine knowledge – undermines understanding. Questions about the etiology of understanding have also been at the heart of recent theoretical debates within epistemology. Kvanvig (2003) put forward the argument that there could be lucky understanding and produced an example that he deemed persuasive. Grimm (2006) responded with a case that, he argued, demonstrated that there could not be lucky understanding. In this paper, we empirically examine how participants' patterns of understanding attributions line up with the predictions of Kvanvig and Grimm. We argue that the data challenge Kvanvig's position. People do not differentiate between knowing-why and understanding-why on the basis of proper etiology: attributions of knowledge and understanding involve comparable (and minimal) roles for epistemic luck. We thus posit that folk knowledge and understanding are etiologically symmetrical.