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Representing and explaining: the eikonic conception of explanation

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The widely-accepted ontic conception of explanation, according to which explanations are “full-bodied things in the world,” is fundamentally misguided. I argue instead for what I call the eikonic conception of scientific explanation, according to which explanations are an epistemic activity involving representations of the phenomena to be explained. What is explained, in the first instance, is not the phenomenon in the world itself, but a particular representation of that phenomenon, which is contextualized within a particular research program and explanatory project. I conclude that this eikonic conception of explanation has the following five virtues: first, it is able to better make sense of scientific practice; second, it allows us to talk normatively about explanations; third, it makes sense of explanatory pluralism; fourth, it helps us better understand the role of mathematics, models, and fictions in scientific explanation; and fifth, it makes room for the full range of constraints (e.g., ontic, epistemic, and communicative) on scientific explanation.

This talk is part of the CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar series.

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