Have you ever thought about the way your car works? The inner works of the engine, how does the fuel make it work, how does combustion lead to movement and is then passed to the wheels? If you have, what are you going to answer an 8-year-old kid when he asks: 'Why does the car move?'; Are you going to start explaining high school physics, mechanics, chemistry of combustion and the concept of friction? Or are you just going to say: 'Well, the car eats up gas, and that makes the engine move the wheels.'; Granted, the latter doesn't explain much about what a car is. But it answers the question by the kid's understanding, doesn't it? The question is answered, the kid is happy, and you did not have to spend a few weeks introducing what you just said. Some may argue that this is misleading, but despite the fact that when viewed generally, the simple answer might seem false or incomplete, in the context of the situation, it is quite adequate. That is what van Fraassen is trying to say with regard to scientific explanation.
According to him, there are two problems about scientific explanation. Both are very easily seen in our example. The first is, when is something explained? Some argue that we should not explain a phenomenon unless we have the full, unifying, true-to-the-last-miniscule-detail explanation, which will also cover all the cases which correspond to our case, cases similar to our case, or distant variants of our case. In short, what they want is a theory of everything, which in itself is a noble goal, but is hardy achievable. Let's face it, everything in our universe is connected in one way or another, or through one another, to everything else in it. A man bears definite connection to, for instance, 'gas giant'; type of planets. A reason for that could be, for example, that both share some mutual chemical elements. Does that mean that same theory should apply to prediction of man's movement as to a gas giant movement? As ridiculous as it sounds, this type of proposition often arises in science, though not as grotesque, but nevertheless as distant, for example, Theory of Relativity and the Quantum Theory. If a child would have been told to expect the same behavior from and ant and from and elephant, he would be quite confused. How do we then expect gigantic objects to obey the same rules as microscopic ones? W...
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...yone would go into the chemical components causing the green color of the apple's skin, unless asked about it. Demonstrations, however, are proofs, and while also answering 'why'; questions, relate the causes to the essence of the phenomena, otherwise the proof is incomplete. A good example of this distinction would be the application of a simple logic rule (also known as De Morgan law), that (~A and ~B) is ~(A or B) and vice versa. We can say that ~(P and ~Q) is (~P or Q) because of De Morgan law, and that is sufficient for an explanation. Yet, if we were to rigorously demonstrate this without any initial assumptions, we would have to prove De Morgan law while at it, or our proof would be incomplete.
To conclude, Van Fraassen's idea of explanation is that which has no place in purely theoretical science, as he rejects the truth of theories as well ass their appeal to essence. An explanation's domain, according to him, is to be adequate in the context chosen by pragmatic factors, which are derived from the 'why'; question the explanation is called to answer. Surely, van Fraassen would not doubt for a second what to answer the kid who asked what is the reason his car moves.
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