Explanation and invariance in the special sciences

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 51 (2):197-254 (2000)
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This paper describes an alternative to the common view that explanation in the special sciences involves subsumption under laws. According to this alternative, whether or not a generalization can be used to explain has to do with whether it is invariant rather than with whether it is lawful. A generalization is invariant if it is stable or robust in the sense that it would continue to hold under a relevant if it is stable or robust in the sense that it would continue to hold under a relevant class of changes. Unlike lawfulness, invariance comes in degrees and has other features that are well suited to capture the characteristics of explanatory generalizations in the special sciences. For example, a generalization can be invariant even if it has exceptions or holds only over a limited spatio-temporal interval. The notion of invariance can be used to resolve a number of dilemmas that arise in standard treatments of explanatory generalizations in the special sciences.



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James Woodward
University of Pittsburgh

Citations of this work

Rethinking mechanistic explanation.Stuart Glennan - 2002 - Proceedings of the Philosophy of Science Association 2002 (3):S342-353.
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References found in this work

Laws and symmetry.Bas C. Van Fraassen - 1989 - New York: Oxford University Press.
Explanation and scientific understanding.Michael Friedman - 1974 - Journal of Philosophy 71 (1):5-19.
Explanatory unification and the causal structure of the world.Philip Kitcher - 1989 - In Philip Kitcher & Wesley Salmon (eds.), Scientific Explanation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 410-505.

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