Against explanatory realism


Explanatory realism is the position that all explanations give information about whatever metaphysically determines the explanandum. This view is popular and plays a central role in metaphysics, but in this paper I argue that explanatory realism is false. In Sect. 1 I introduce explanatory realism in its weak and strong versions, and discuss the argumentative work that explanatory realism is used for in contemporary metaphysics. In Sect. 2 I present a series of problem cases for explanatory realism, including explanation by analogy, explanations involving rules, reduction ad absurdum explanations and certain statistical explanations. In Sect. 3 I consider and reject two modified versions of explanatory realism: the position that explanatory realism is true only of explanation in metaphysics, and the position that determinative explanation is the most complete form of explanation. In conclusion I consider explanatory antirealism and explanatory pluralism as alternatives to explanatory realism.

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  1. 1.

    Henceforth I will shorten “metaphysical determination” to “determination”.

  2. 2.

    Schaffer (2016, p. 96).

  3. 3.

    See Schaffer (2016, section 1) for detail about these similarities, and p. 59 for a summary.

  4. 4.

    Audi (2012, section 2).

  5. 5.

    Kim (1994, p. 67).

  6. 6.

    Wilsch (2015, 2016).

  7. 7.

    Most authors agree that supervenience is not explanatory, but Kovacs argues against this consensus in Kovacs (unpublished ms).

  8. 8.

    Lewis’s view is, to explain an event is to provide some information about its causal history. Lewis (1986, p. 271) Skow’s view is, A body of fact partially causal explains E iff it is a body of facts about what causes, if any, e had, or it is a body of fact about what it would have taken for some specific alternative or range of alternatives to E to have occurred instead. Skow (2014, p. 5).

  9. 9.

    Lewis (1986).

  10. 10.

    Lewis (1986, p. 220).

  11. 11.

    Skow (2014, p. 4).

  12. 12.

    Kim (1988, p. 226) This view applies only to the explanation of events, but elsewhere Kim argues that there could be non-causal forms of determination that support non-causal explanations in which the explananda need not be events. See Kim (1994, p. 67).

  13. 13.

    Kim (1988, pp. 231–232).

  14. 14.

    Kim (1994, p. 68).

  15. 15.

    Kim (1988).

  16. 16.

    See Kim (1990, p. 24).

  17. 17.

    Audi (2015, p. 212).

  18. 18.

    Audi (2012, p. 688).

  19. 19.

    Ruben (1990, Chapter 7).

  20. 20.

    Ruben (1990, p. 233).

  21. 21.

    Audi also groups his own view together with those of Kim and Ruben in Audi (2015, p. 4).

  22. 22.

    Koslicki (2012) Varieties of Ontological Dependence in Correia and Schneider (2012, p. 213) and footnote 27.

  23. 23.

    For example, Fine describes grounding as the ultimate form of explanation in Fine (2001, p. 16).

  24. 24.

    Kim writes, On the realist view, our explanations are ‘correct’ or‘ ‘true’ if they depict these relations correctly, just as our propositions or beliefs are true if they correctly depict objective facts, and explanations could be more or less ‘accurate’ according to how accurately they depict these relations. Kim (1988, p. 226). But he also writes, According to “explanatory realism”, when something is correctly invoked as an explanation of another thing, the explanatory relation must be grounded in some objective relation of dependence or determination holding for the explanans and the explanandum. Kim (1993, p. xii).

  25. 25.

    Weak explanatory realism faces problems beyond these counterexamples. One concern is that weak explanatory realism has such a tenuous connection to determination as to not deserve the title “explanatory realism”. Sober argues that the view of causal explanation as providing any causal information about the explanandum trivializes causal explanation in Sober (1983, pp. 202–203). (Skow discusses Sober’s view in Skow (2014) footnote 4.) Finnur Dellsén also discusses some problem cases for Skow’s account of explanation in Skow in Dellsén (2016).

  26. 26.

    Darwin (1859, Chapter 1). See discussion in Theunissen (2012).

  27. 27.

    Lipton (2004, p. 24).

  28. 28.

    See Holyoak and Thagard (1995, Chapter 8) for discussion of wave and water flow analogies. Hempel also mentions these cases in Hempel (1965, p. 430), and Hesse discusses them in Hesse (1966, p. 11).

  29. 29.


  30. 30.

    Hempel (1965, p. 430) and Friedman (1974, pp. 9–11).

  31. 31.

    Hempel (1965, p. 430).

  32. 32.

    See discussion in Hempel, C. & Oppenheim, P. “Studies in the Logic of Explanation” in Hempel (1965). Section 4. They argue that reduction to the familiar cannot be necessary for explanation because so many explanations do not reduce to the familiar, and that reduction to the familiar is not sufficient for explanation because such explanations lack testability and also do not involve general laws. The second point should not worry us because their influential conception of all explanation as involving general laws has long been rejected, and there is good reason to be hesitant about the first point. There are interesting questions about what makes for a successful analogy, but it is possible to specify some dimension along which two entities are similar, and then draw an analogy on the basis of that similarity, as we often do when using argument from analogy. Then the specified notion of similarity could be testable.

  33. 33.

    Hesse (1966) Section on The Explanatory Function of Metaphor; Campbell (1920).

  34. 34.

    See familiar discussion of this point in e.g. Fodor (1974) As mentioned earlier some philosophers, such as Kim, hold that complete explanations exclude each other, but I am presuming that an explanation can be successful without being complete because it may be even impossible to formulated a genuinely complete explanation. As Lewis puts it, It is, of course, very unlikely that so much explanatory information ever could be known, or conveyed to anyone in some tremendous act of explaining! Lewis (1986, p. 219).

  35. 35.

    Daniel Kahnemen discusses this example in Kahneman (2011, Chapter 10).

  36. 36.

    Kahneman (2011, Chapter 10).

  37. 37.

    An explanatory realist could argue that in cases such as the football case we are explaining what the game is, rather than explaining the fact that the player was sent off, by appealing to the rule. However, this would be a roundabout and unnecessarily complex way to explain what the game is, because the explanandum is the fact that the player was sent off, rather than any more general facts about the game of football.

  38. 38.

    Brennan et al discuss the use of norms in the explanation of action in Part 3 of Brennan et al. (2013).

  39. 39.

    For instance, Wilsch defends a nomological account of ground according to which some truths p1, …, pn metaphysically explain q just in case there are metaphysical laws that determine q on the basis of p1, …, pn. Wilsch (2015).

  40. 40.

    See discussion in Chang (2004, Chapter 4). Thomson uses similar reasoning in a footnote to the 1848 paper in which he originally proposes his absolute temperature scale ("absolute" meaning detached from the physical details of any actual substances). This was before Thomson included absolute zero on his temperature scale, a detail he didn't add until 1852. Thomson notes that on the air-thermometer scale the value of a degree depends on how high or low up the scale it is taken. His own proposed scale is not like this, as on his absolute scale all degrees have the same value. But Thomson points out in a footnote that it is to be expected that the air thermometer scales are as they are, because if they were not then there would be a point at which the volume of air would be reduced to nothing: This is what we might anticipate, when we reflect that infinite cold must correspond to a finite number of degrees of the air-thermometer below zero; since, if we push the strict principle of graduation, stated above, sufficiently far, we should arrive at a point corresponding to the volume of air being reduced to nothing, which would be marked as—2780 of the scale (−100/.366, if .366 be the coefficient of expansion); and therefore—2730 of the air-thermometer is a point which cannot be reached at any finite temperature, however low. Thomson (1882, p. 104).

  41. 41.

    Lewis (1986, p. 222).

  42. 42.

    Jeffrey (1969) Statistical Explanation versus Statistical Inference, reprinted in Salmon (ed.) (1969, pp. 22–23).

  43. 43.

    Those who prefer could follow Jeffrey and present this as a case of radioactive decay to get genuine indeterminism into the case, but I will use the coin toss for the sake of simplicity.

  44. 44.

    See Salmon on the discussion of the IS model in the introductory chapter of Salmon (1969). See “Aspects of Scientific Explanation” section 3, in Hempel (1965) for the IS model.

  45. 45.

    I owe this locution to Skiles in Skiles (2015).

  46. 46.

    For example, Rosen endorses a necessitarian “entailment principle”, and argues that this is a distinguishing feature of grounding. Rosen also argues for a connection between grounding and reduction that relies upon grounding necessitarianism. See Rosen (2010, sections 7 and 10). For critique of the principle, see Skiles (2015).

  47. 47.

    For discussion see Cartwright (1979).

  48. 48.

    This is not the only kind of statistical explanation that poses problems for the realist. Lange argues that really statistical explanation is a form of noncausal statistical explanation, including explanations appealing to genetic drift. See Lange (2013).

  49. 49.

    For introduction to and discussion of narrative explanation, See Danto (1985) and Velleman (2003).

  50. 50.

    For discussion of whether narrative explanation is causal, see Richards (1992).

  51. 51.

    Martin (1994).

  52. 52.

    Martin (1994, section 2).

  53. 53.

    For example, see Achinstein (1983), and Van Fraassen (1980).

  54. 54.

    Sometimes the label “explanatory pluralism” is used in philosophy of science for the position that more than one explanation is required to account for a given phenomenon. For example, Carla Fehr argues that this is true of the evolution of sex in Fehr (2006). However, I am using this term in a different way, for the view that some explanations are determinative, while others are not.


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Thanks to Paul Audi, Stephen Biggs, Finnur Dellsén, Ranpal Dosanjh, Samuel Fletcher, David Kovacs, Marc Lange, Kerry McKenzie, Elizabeth Miller, Alex Skiles and Megan Wallace for helpful feedback and discussion. Thanks to audiences at the Open Session of the Aristotelian Society, the Central States Philosophical Association, the Iowa Philosophical Society, the University of Reading and the UNC Chapel Hill Philosophy of Science Workshop. Thanks also to the Iowa State University M&E Research Group.

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Taylor, E. Against explanatory realism. Philos Stud 175, 197–219 (2018).

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  • Explanation
  • Metaphysics
  • Causation
  • Grounding