What Makes a Scientific Explanation Distinctively Mathematical?

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 64 (3):485-511 (2013)
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Certain scientific explanations of physical facts have recently been characterized as distinctively mathematical –that is, as mathematical in a different way from ordinary explanations that employ mathematics. This article identifies what it is that makes some scientific explanations distinctively mathematical and how such explanations work. These explanations are non-causal, but this does not mean that they fail to cite the explanandum’s causes, that they abstract away from detailed causal histories, or that they cite no natural laws. Rather, in these explanations, the facts doing the explaining are modally stronger than ordinary causal laws or are understood in the why question’s context to be constitutive of the physical arrangement at issue. A distinctively mathematical explanation works by showing the explanandum to be more necessary than ordinary causal laws could render it. Distinctively mathematical explanations thus supply a kind of understanding that causal explanations cannot. 1 Introduction2 Some Distinctively Mathematical Scientific Explanations3 Are Distinctively Mathematical Explanations Set Apart by their Failure to Cite Causes? 4 Distinctively Mathematical Explanations do not Exploit Causal Powers5 How these Distinctively Mathematical Explanations Work6 Conclusion



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Marc Lange
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Citations of this work

Explanatory Abstractions.Lina Jansson & Juha Saatsi - 2019 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 70 (3):817–844.
The Narrow Ontic Counterfactual Account of Distinctively Mathematical Explanation.Mark Povich - 2021 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 72 (2):511-543.
The directionality of distinctively mathematical explanations.Carl F. Craver & Mark Povich - 2017 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 63:31-38.

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References found in this work

Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation.Michael Strevens - 2008 - Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Science, truth, and democracy.Philip Kitcher - 2001 - New York: Oxford University Press.

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