Monday, 14 June 2010

On Types of Explanation: Ben’s Reply to Me

The following is Ben's reply to my post, On Types of Explanation: My Reply to Ben.

Thanks for the reply. Let me clarify what I meant to say in my own post about two points germane to the issue between us.

First, I did not mean to suggest that there cannot be different kinds of explanation, where a difference in kind marks, say, a difference in the sorts of considerations that fill in explanatory gaps (e.g., law-governed particles vs. psychological states). Nor did I mean to rule out differences in kinds of explanation where this marks the fact that there are different standards involved (e.g., due to differences in the background understanding of the recipient of the explanation). This last point is relevant to the issue of whether justification is a kind of explanation, which I will return to below. What I did want to stress is that these differences need not mark different concepts of explanation (e.g., folk-psychological vs. scientific). I did not mean to say, on the one hand, that there is only one type of explanation, and then, on the other, speak of different kinds of explanation. What I wanted to say is that there is one concept and different ways of falling under it.

I think this is all compatible with saying that our scientific practices and folk-psychological practices of explaining phenomena in the world appeal to different ‘storehouses’ of explanans. What I want to insist on is that the activity of explaining is in all cases formally similar (the explanation is offered by one who aims to thereby plug a gap in someone’s understanding). The appeal to different sorts of information does not make different kinds of explanations different in this regard. And neither does a difference in what it takes to plug the gap in understanding. One reason why I think this picture is helpful is that it allows us to explain differences in types of agent (e.g., non-rational vs. rational; reasons-responsive vs. responsive to reasons as such) according to differences in parameters on adequate explanation.

The second point I would like to clarify has to do with justification. By a 'justified agent' you take me to refer to the agent the explanation is about--as you put it, the explanandum. But--and this is crucial here--in some cases this agent may also be the recipient of the explanation. So we may speak of a 'justified agent' in the following two senses, call them third personal and first personal.

From the third personal point of view, we speak of an agent as justified when we can articulate an explanation of her behavior that appeals to her take on the situation and that plugs a gap in our normatively-loaded background understanding—i.e., a background understanding that includes things like norms governing formations of beliefs and intentions. When we speak of a 'justified agent' from the third personal point of view, this does not entail (i) that the agent can recognize reasons as such nor (ii) that the agent has a justifying reason for her behavior. Presumably, the agent has at least a motivating reason (a consideration that that motivates her behavior) and our explanation is in terms of this (e.g., what plugs the gap is the agent’s supposed representation of an approaching poacher). Moreover, as we are the sorts of agents who can receive explanations that fill gaps in a normatively-loaded background understanding--i.e., justifications--the agent's motivating reason may justify her behavior to us. But the agent herself need not have a justifying reason because she need not be the sort of agent who can have a normatively-loaded background understanding.

In the first personal case, a 'justified agent' is both the object and recipient of the explanation of her behavior. So the distinction between the one performing the behavior and the one normatively situating the explanation of this performance collapses. An explanation of one's own behavior that satisfies a gap in a normatively-loaded understanding of the situation entails that the agent (i) can recognize reasons as such and (ii) has a justifying reason for the behavior.

So in the first personal case the object and recipient both are relevant to the standards in terms of which a proper justifying explanation is given. In the third personal case this is not so. And this difference between the two cases explains why the capacity for reflection is necessary for having justifying reasons. The 'justified agent' who first personally explains her behavior to herself by plugging a gap in her normatively-loaded background understanding--i.e., articulates a justifying reason for her behavior--manifests her capacity for reflection. We can say that she has a justifying reason. The 'justified agent' whose behavior is third personally explained does not necessarily manifest a capacity for reflection. And this is why this second agent might not have a justifying reason. Nevertheless, we can speak of the agent as justified because we can articulate a consideration that plugs a gap in our normatively-loaded background understanding when we look at things from the agent’s point of view. And we can assume that agents other than ourselves have justifying reasons because we can speak of them as justified in this third personal way and assume that they, like us, can receive justifying explanations. So my view does not commit me to a suspect solipsism.

Again, as we have discussed in earlier posts, this does not mean that we illicitly import desires or beliefs about the situation when considering the situation from the agent’s point of view. Rather, we take up what we assume to be the agent’s own psychological representations of the situation (though we can be wrong about what psychological states we suppose the agent to have). But given that we are the sorts of creatures who understand the world in terms of norms, we can situate the supposed representations of the agent in a normative context. Perhaps we can also abstract away from the normatively-loaded understanding through which we usually view the world. We might then articulate a mere explanatory reason, or mere motivating reason. I think this is plausible. But the point I want to insist on is that there seems to me to be a clear way in which we can articulate justifying reasons for other agents and not thereby commit ourselves to the claim that those agents have justifying reasons at all. The reason we can do these two things is that we can take up their perspective in the context of our own normatively-loaded understanding. Since the adopted perspective is theirs (including their supposed representation of the situation) it is apt to talk of the reasons being their reasons. But since the normative background is ours, it is at the same time apt to talk of them not having these reasons.

I hope this clarifies some of what I meant. Thinking about your remarks has helped me to get clearer on things in my own mind.

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