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Nick Fletcher PF303

What is a Scientific Explanation?

What exactly constitutes a scientific explanation has been the subject of

philosophical debate since pre-Socratic times (Woodward, 2003). However, a
turning point in debate over the subject occurred when Hempel postulated his
deductive-nomological and inductive-statistical models of scientific explanation
and most modern debate has followed on from Hempel’s work (Woodward, 2003).
This essay aims to explain these two models, and, by analysis of some counter-
arguments to the model, hopes to show that if a broad view of causation is taken
and applied to Hempel's models, the two models are together able to describe
well what a scientific explanation is.
Hempel postulated his ‘covering law’ model of scientific explanation in
1965, which states that any scientific explanation must start with a law from
which the explanation can be deduced (Papineau, 2005). This model is often
referred to as the ‘deductive-nomological’ (DN) model of scientific explanation
due to this deductive element1. For particular events, the DN model ascribes to
the following schema (Papineau, 2005):

Initial conditions: I1, I2, …, In (Explanans)

Laws: L1, L2, …, Ln
Explanandum: E

This schema rests on four premises; the explanans only provides a scientific
explanation of the explanandum iff:
(i) E is a logical consequence of the conjunction of the explanans
(ii) E does not follow from any proper subset2 of the explanans
(iii) The explanans sentences must have empirical content3
(iv) The explanans sentences must all be true. (Taken from Ruben, 1990)

For example, a scientific explanation of an event where an apple falls to the

ground from its tree has as initial conditions the position of the apple before its
decent (I1), the fact that the apple has mass (I2) and that the apple has just
become detached from the tree (I3). The relevant law here is the law of gravity
(L), which states that any object of mass unsuspended in the air will fall to the
earth4. Thus, after consideration of the initial conditions of the event and the

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application of a relevant law a scientific explanation can be reached deductively;

that the apple fell to the ground because of the law of gravity.
The DN model is also able to accommodate explanations of laws in terms
of other laws through the following schema (Papineau, 2005):

Laws: L1, L2, …, Ln (Explanans)

Explanandum: L.

To take an example from Papineau (2005), a scientific explanation of rainbows

has as explanans the laws that sunlight is a mixture of all wavelengths of light
(L1), different wavelengths of light refract differently when passing from air into
water (L2) and the shape of a raindrop causes internal reflection off the back of
the raindrop (L3). The explanans can thus be deductively used to explain why we
see rainbows when sunlight shines through rain (L.).
In addition to the DN model, Hempel also postulated the inductive-
statistical model of scientific explanation, which relaxes the requirements of the
laws to allow probabilistic laws to be used as explanans as well as exceptionless
laws (Papineau, 2005). This model follows the following schema (Papineau, 2005):

Initial Conditions: I1, I2, …, In (Explanans)

Probabilistic Laws: L, to the effect that most I1, …, Ins are Es
Explanandum: E.

For example, a scientific explanation of why the Wasps beat Bristol Rugby
recently could have as initial conditions that that the Wasps have a stronger and
heavier pack (I1) and faster and more skilled backs (I2). Statistically, as it is more
likely that the team with a stronger, heavier pack and faster, more skilled backs
tend to win in rugby, this probabilistic law can be used to provide a scientific
explanation of the win. The probabilistic nature of this law is highlighted by the
fact that the score was 32-30, with the winning try being made in the 80th
minute; the law is clearly probabilistic rather than exceptionless as things may
well have actually gone the other way.
These models suggest that there is a strong symmetry between
explanation and prediction Indeed, if the model holds then the only difference
between the two is that prediction occurs before the event has occurred and
explanation afterwards (Papineau, 2005). In this way, the model appears to

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subscribe to the symmetry thesis, that (a) ‘every successful prediction is a

potential explanation’ and (b) ‘every successful explanation is a potential
prediction’ (Ruben, 1990; pp.146). However, whilst it is clear that (a) is sound, it
is not clear that (b) is. The most widely used counter-example to (b) is that of
Koplic spots, spots which appear as a precedent to the manifestation of measles.
These spots can be used to accurately predict later manifestation of measles
(albeit with some exceptions) but the spots cannot be used to explain why the
manifestation occurs. Hempel is vague on this point, arguing that (b) is ‘open to
question’ (quoted by Ruben, 1990; pp.146) but it could be argued that (b) is not
refuted by this example.
This problem can be solved by a distinction between scientific and non-
scientific predictions. A scientific prediction will satisfy the symmetry thesis, for
example after observation of a patients blood and discovery of the measles virus
a scientific prediction can be made that the person is likely to develop measles if
they have not already. However, Koplic spots cannot be used to scientifically
predict development of measles because the Koplic spots cannot form part of a
scientific explanation due to premise (ii). A prediction can be made on the basis
of such spots, but the spots are an intermittent result of the measles virus, so
this must also be included in a full scientific explanation. After this inclusion, the
explanandum (prediction of the symptoms of measles), follows from a proper
subset of the explanans statements, i.e. the development of measles becomes
predicted, scientifically, by the presence of the measles virus in blood, not by the
Koplic spots. This distinction is essentially made through an appeal to causation,
and as such is able to solve the problem for instances of causal scientific
explanation. However, it is clear that there are instances of scientific explanation
that do not involve causation, explanations that appeal to laws of coexistence
rather than laws of succession (Ruben, 1990).
Such scientific explanations have only laws of coexistence as explanans
rather than laws of succession; taking example from Bromberger (taken from
Ruben, 1990; pp.148), the length of a shadow cast by a pole can be both
predicted and explained by the height of the pole and the angle of elevation of
the sun. However, it is clear that the height of the pole can be predicted by the
length of the shadow and the angle of elevation of the sun, but not explained.
Here again I would argue that the length of the shadow does not scientifically
predict the height of the pole, and therefore its inability to explain it is irrelevant.
The height of the pole can be used to scientifically predict the length of the

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shadow, and therefore can also be used to scientifically explain it. This is because
there is a sort of causality to such coexistences. If the shadow did not exist in the
example, perhaps due to someone shining a torch where the shadow should be, it
would not affect the existence of the pole; however, if the pole were to cease
existing, the shadow would cease existing also. The existence of the shadow
depends entirely on the existence of the pole, in a way it is caused by it, whilst
the existence of the pole depends in no way upon the existence of the shadow.
Whilst this idea does not fit with Hempel's beliefs about causation, that causation
must involve a succession in time, using this different view of causation does not
cause problems in the DN model. Thus, (b) holds and the symmetry thesis can be
used as a gage as to whether an explanation is truly scientific.
It could be argued that the addition of causality to scientific explanation
causes problems in terms of constitutive explanations and teleological
explanations. A constitutive explanation could take the form of:

L: Water is H20,
I: The liquid in the glass is H20
E: Therefore the liquid is water5

This is indeed a truly scientific explanation of why the liquid in the glass is water,
but it is not clear where the notion of causality comes into it. However, it could be
argued that the fact that the liquid in the glass is constituted by H20 causes it to
be water, and whilst this requires a slightly broader view of causation6 than is
held by most philosophers, it has intuitive value and serves to allow such
explanations to rightfully be called scientific.
Teleological explanations concern why a certain purpose has been
achieved or end has come about, for example ‘why are polar bears white?’,
‘because it helps them to hunt with more success.’ Whilst this is clearly a
scientific explanation, it is not clear how the polar bears improved hunting skills
can have caused them to be white. However, the explanation can be re-phrased

L: Evolution means that animals with the best characteristics for survival are
more likely to survive longer an thus produce more offspring,
I: Polar bears live in snow-covered lands,
E: Polar bears have evolved white fur to help them hunt

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All that has occurred here is a law has been introduced that, in conjunction with I,
truly explains E scientifically by creating a causal link between I and E. E is shown
to be, in a way, caused by both L and I, and causation remains valid as a
component of scientific explanation.
Thus, from his covering-law model of explanation, Hempel has been able
to produce two models of scientific explanation, DN and IS. One of these models
is deductive and the other inductive as, just like any argument, scientific
explanation can occur either deductively or inductively. Between them these
models seem able to cover all instances of scientific explanation, albeit after
taking a broad and quite intuitive view of causation; including those that involve
coexistent laws and successive laws, as well as straightforward, constitutive or
teleological explanations. Furthermore, mere explanations can be distinguished
from truly scientific explanations via the symmetry thesis. To conclude, a
scientific explanation is7 one that takes the form of either a deductive or
inductive argument involving laws or initial conditions that both entail and are
causally related to the explanandum.

There is also a more relaxed version of the covering-law model that does not
insist on this deductive element, the statistical-relevance model, which shall be
discussed later in this essay.
i.e. there are no surplus explanans that are not necessary for the explanation.
As noted by Ruben (1990), this point is fairly redundant as the explanandum is
necessarily an empirical fact, meaning that (i) ensures (iii) is necessarily fulfilled.
This is not an exact definition, but serves the purposes of this essay.
The terms ‘H20’ and ‘water’ can be interchanged according to the information

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one holds over what is in the glass.

A subject too vast to be considered here in much detail.
7Arguably; there is much left to develop but not enough room here.


Papineau, D. (2005). ‘Methodology: The Elements of the Philosophy of Science’. In

Grayling, A. (ed.) (2005). Philosophy 1: A Guide Through the Subject, pp.123-180.
Oxford University Press.
Ruben, D. (1990). Explaining Explanation. Routledge, London & New York.
Woodward, J. (2003). ‘Scientific Explanation’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of