Backing Without Realism


Facts about explanation are often taken as a guide to facts about metaphysics. Such inferences from explanation to metaphysics typically rely on two elements: explanatory realism, the view that it is a characteristic and necessary aspect of explanation to give information about metaphysical structure, and a backing model of explanation, according to which explanations are backed by supporting relations, such as causation. Combining explanatory realism with a backing model permits conclusions about metaphysics to follow straightforwardly from facts about explanation, and those who endorse backing models of explanation have typically endorsed explanatory realism. In light of recent critiques of explanatory realism, in this paper I explore the prospects for a backing model without explanatory realism. I articulate a non-realist backing model and argue that this model can satisfy most of the motivations for a realist backing model, and that it can also play a central and illuminating role in the practice of metaphysics.

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  1. 1.

    See e.g. Audi (2012).

  2. 2.

    See e.g. Broad (1925), Chalmers (1996, 2006), and discussion in Taylor (2015), (2016).

  3. 3.

    Kerry McKenzie documents this presumption in McKenzie (2017). See e.g. Dasgupta (2016), Rosen (2010).

  4. 4.

    See discussion of explanatory realism in Bokulich (2018), Kovacs (2017), and Taylor(2018a). There is another popular route from explanation to metaphysics, through inference to the best explanation. See discussion in Paul (2012), Sider (2009). Here I am focusing on direct, single-case inferences from a particular explanations or explanatory failures to particular metaphysical claims, whereas IBE in metaphysics involves the global evaluation and comparison of the explanatory success of general metaphysical models. I discuss this in more detail in Sect. 5.

  5. 5.

    Though Anna-Sofia Maurin argues that this relationship is not straightforward in Maurin (2019).

  6. 6.

    See Bokulich (2018), Kovacs (2017), and Taylor (2018a).

  7. 7.

    Notably by Benjamin Schnieder in (2006, pp. 404) and Schnieder (2010).

  8. 8.

    Presupposing that grounding is distinct from explanation, a view that Michael Raven calls separatism about grounding, in Raven (2015).

  9. 9.

    See Kim (1988, 1990, 1993, 1994), Audi (2012, 2015), Ruben (1990), Schaffer (2016, 2017).

  10. 10.

    In Kim (1988) At first Kim describes this view in terms of causation, but then expands the view to encompass a wider range of backing relations. An implication of this view is that causation is a kind of metaphysical determination, and this way of thinking about causation is widely shared by backing theorists.

  11. 11.

    Kim (1994), especially Sect. 5.

  12. 12.

    Ruben (1990) Chapter 7.

  13. 13.

    Ruben (1990) Chapter 7.

  14. 14.

    Audi (2012, pp. 686) .

  15. 15.

    Audi Section 2 Some backing theorists think that the backing relations are forms of “determination”, while others hold that they are forms of “dependence”, while others still take these terms to be interchangeable. I follow Audi in taking determination relations to be primarily productive (as he puts it in Audi (, P.) pp. 690, these are relations of responsibility or bringing about) whereas dependence relations are not necessarily productive. I will use the broader term “dependence” for the backing relations throughout, bearing in mind that many of the relations I call “dependence” will be taken to be forms of “determination” by other authors.

  16. 16.

    Schaffer (2016, pp. 96) ; Schaffer (2017, pp. 3) .

  17. 17.

    As mentioned in footnote 8, Raven coined the terms separatist for those who hold that grounding backs explanation, and unionist for those who hold that grounding is a form of explanation, in Raven (2015). Separatists include Correia and Schnieder (2012a, b), Koslicki (2012), Schaffer (2012), Trogdon (2013).

  18. 18.

    Kim (1994, pp. 57–58). There are interesting questions here about precisely how close this mirroring must be for an author like Kim, but for the moment I will simply note that for many proponents of realist backing models, the structure of the backing relation is in some way reflected in the structure of the explanation.

  19. 19.

    For example, see discussion in Rosen (2010) on the structural principles of grounding. There is a lively literature on these principles. For instance, Naomi Thompson makes the case against the claim that grounding must be asymmetric, in Thompson (2016), and Ricki Bliss explores the implications of some of these principles for grounding and fundamentality in Bliss (2014).

  20. 20.

    Kim (1988, pp. 227); Audi (2012, pp. 691).

  21. 21.

    Some argue that the connection between causation and grounding goes beyond both being metaphysical forms of determination. Alastair Wilson, for example, has argued that grounding is a form of causation in Wilson (2018). See also Schaffer (2016).

  22. 22.

    For a survey of contemporary Aristotelian metaphysics, see Tahko (2012).

  23. 23.

    As documented by Thompson in (2016) Sect. 2, and Taylor (2018b, pp. 217).

  24. 24.

    This presumes that a realist backing model requires explanatory realism, but there is logical space for realist backing views that do not presuppose explanatory realism. For example, one could hold a backing view of some, but not all, explanation, and endorse realism only about backed explanation. However, in general I am interested in exploring and responding to backing theories that presuppose explanatory realism, as these are the backing theories that have been most articulated and defended.

  25. 25.

    See Bokulich (2018), Kovacs (2017), and Taylor (2018b).

  26. 26.

    There are other realist approaches to explanation that focus on connections between explanation and structure, or joint-carving, such as the view defended in Sider (2011) Chapter 3. However, these views are not articulated in terms of backing, and so are orthogonal to this discussion.

  27. 27.

    The idea that there is a connection between explanation and information about dependence relations has also recently been explored in connection with questions about understanding. See Dellsén (2018).

  28. 28.

    The view that reasons are causes is widely, but not universally, held. See discussion in Queloz (2018), and see Sehon (2000) for critique of the causal theory.

  29. 29.

    Whether such cases count as realist or non-realist explanations will depend on our metaphysics of logic. A logical realist would not acknowledge these as cases of non-realist backing. I am presupposing neither logical realism nor logical non-realism here. I simply want to argue that even if logical non-realism is true, there is still a role for logical dependence as a backer of explanations. For discussion of logical realism, see Michaela McSweeney in (2019a, b).

  30. 30.

    This requires a distinction between mere logical entailment and the kind of logical dependence that can back explanation, and this challenge is faced by anyone who thinks that there are logical backing explanations.

  31. 31.

    Audi (2012, pp. 686).

  32. 32.

    Fine (2001).

  33. 33.

    Kim (1988, pp. 227).

  34. 34.

    Audi (2012, pp. 691).

  35. 35.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for pointing out that all relations are metaphysical insofar as they are part of the Quinean inventory.

  36. 36.

    See footnote 15 for details.

  37. 37.

    See discussion in Díez et al. (2013) and in Nickel (2010).

  38. 38.

    See discussion in Schnieder (2006), especially pp. 404–406.

  39. 39.

    Some might argue that these are causal explanations, but I am presupposing that they are not for the sake of the example. My goal is not to argue that explanations by analogy are not causal, but instead to discuss the ways in which NRB can accommodate them if they/some are not causal.

  40. 40.

    Achinstein (1983).

  41. 41.

    For example, see the view defended by Bertrand Russell in (1910).

  42. 42.

    For example, see the view defended by William James in (1907) Chapter 6.

  43. 43.

    Such as Huw Price’s perspectival approach to causation. See Price (2005).

  44. 44.

    Weisberg (2007), Bokulich (2012).

  45. 45.

    Weisberg (2007) See also discussion in McMullin (1985).

  46. 46.

    Weisberg (2007, pp. 641).

  47. 47.

    Weisberg (2007, pp. 641).

  48. 48.

    In order to properly accommodate such cases, one has to acknowledge a different explanandum, which would be the individual’s own understanding of the target, rather than the target phenomenon itself. As before, this seems to be a stretch, but this is a challenge more for the proponent of non-factive explanation that for the proponent of NRB. NRB can offer these resources for making sense of such cases, but another option is to acknowledge that non-factive explanation marks the limits of the account, or simply deny that there is genuine non-factive explanation.

  49. 49.

    Bokulich (2012).

  50. 50.

    RB as stated here only comprises necessary conditions for explanation, and so would not license a deductive argument from the unavailability of an explanation to the absence of a backing relation, because an argument of this form would deny the antecedent, as follows: If there is an explanation, then a backing relation is instantiated. There is no explanation. Therefore, no backing relation is instantiated. However, a stronger version of RB involving a biconditional would permit the deductive argument.

  51. 51.

    Broad (1925, pp. 61). See discussion of similar claims in Taylor (2015).

  52. 52.

    Taylor discusses such inferences in Taylor (2016, 2018b).

  53. 53.

    This picture of the role in IBE in metaphysics is discussed by Paul (2012) and in Sider (2009).

  54. 54.

    See discussion of the deductive step in IBE, see Dellsén (2016). For discussion of the a priority of abductive reasoning, see Biggs and Wilson (2017).

  55. 55.

    See Paul (2012).


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Many thanks to Michael Della Rocca, Finnur Dellsén, Marc Lange, Michaela McSweeney, Elizabeth Miller, Ian Phillips, Jonathan Schaffer, Alex Skiles, Naomi Thompson, and two very helpful anonymous referees. Particular thanks to the Metaphysics Group at the 5th Biennial Mentoring Workshop for Pre-Tenure Women in Philosophy: Fatema Amijee, Sara Bernstein, Maegan Fairchild, Jade Fletcher and Li Kang. Thanks also to audiences at the FramePhys/Gothenburg conference on Metaphysical Explanation in Science at the University of Birmingham, the Early Career Metaphysics Workshop at Lehigh University, and Non-Causal Explanations: Logical, Linguistic and Philosophical Perspectives at Ghent University.

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Taylor, E. Backing Without Realism. Erkenn (2020).

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