, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp 13-43

Telltale Signs: What Common Explanatory Strategies in Chemistry Reveal about Explanation Itself

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Abstract

This essay addresses issues concerningexplanation by exploring how explanatorystructures function within contemporarychemistry. Three examples are discussed:explanations of the behavior of gases using theideal gas law, explanations of trends inchemical properties using the periodic table,and explanations of molecular geometry usingdiagrammatic orbital schemes. In each case,the general explanatory structure, rather thanparticular explanations, occupies center stagein the analysis. It is argued that thisquasi-empirical investigation may be morefruitful than previous analyses that attempt toisolate the essential features of individualexplanations. There are two reasons for thisconclusion, each discussed in some detail. First, the traditional analyses rely on highlyprecarious reasoning. Second, empiricallygrounded investigations provide a more naturalconnection to the core aim of analyses ofexplanation, namely to provide a rationale forthe widely expressed preference for explanatorytheories in science.