Viewing-as explanations and ontic dependence

  • William D’AlessandroEmail author


According to a widespread view in metaphysics and philosophy of science (the “Dependence Thesis”), all explanations involve relations of ontic dependence between the items appearing in the explanandum and the items appearing in the explanans. I argue that a family of mathematical cases, which I call “viewing-as explanations”, are incompatible with the Dependence Thesis. These cases, I claim, feature genuine explanations that aren’t supported by ontic dependence relations. Hence the thesis isn’t true in general. The first part of the paper defends this claim and discusses its significance. The second part of the paper considers whether viewing-as explanations occur in the empirical sciences, focusing on the case of so-called fictional models (such as Bohr’s model of the atom). It’s sometimes suggested that fictional models can be explanatory even though they fail to represent actual worldly dependence relations. Whether or not such models explain, I suggest, depends on whether we think scientific explanations necessarily give information relevant to intervention and control. Finally, I argue that counterfactual approaches to explanation also have trouble accommodating viewing-as cases.


Explanation Mathematical explanation Ontological dependence Viewing-as Ontic conception Philosophy of mathematics Philosophy of science Counterfactual dependence Counterpossibles Counterfactuals 



This paper started life as a third of my dissertation at the University of Illinois at Chicago; I’m very grateful to my advisor, Daniel Sutherland, and to my other committee members, Mahrad Almotahari, Kenny Easwaran, Dave Hilbert and Marc Lange, for their feedback and support. The comments of an anonymous referee for Philosophical Studies led to some significant additions and (I hope) improvements. I’ve also benefited from conversations about these issues with Liz Camp, Lisa James, Conor Mayo-Wilson, Chris Pincock, Peter Tan, Lauren Woomer, and audience members at the 2018 Philosophy of Science Association meeting in Seattle. Finally, preemptive thanks to Mark Povich and Verónica Gómez for their comments at my upcoming session at the 2019 Eastern Division meeting of the APA.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Illinois at ChicagoChicagoUSA

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