explain / describe

" Science is any attempt to bring facts into logical order". B. Bavink

"What happened?"
According to David Marr, a description is the result of using a representation to describe a given entity.

A simple description identifies an object and recognizes it as belonging to a certain kind, or as possessing a certain property. In C.S. Peirce's terms, a description recognizes that a certain thing is a token of a certain type, that a thing is a member of a certain class or a representative bearer of a certain property.

Scientific descriptions are concerned with systems, that is, extended objects so organized as to maintain their integrity over time. Descriptions of systems specify their properties as observables, such that a complex of observables define the state of the system at a given time. This concept implies the possibilities of other states. A second kind of scientific description applies to changes of state from one time to another. In some sciences these two kinds of description are clearly distinguished. For example, in the description of biological systems, structural description is given in anatomy, and change of state description in physiology. (from Rom Harré, The Logic of the Sciences, p. 42)


possible distinctions: inductive vs deductive ?
experimental vs theoretical ?
historical vs rational?
Kantian constitutive / regulative?

Svetlana Alper's accounts of the tradition of Northern European art, which flourished in the seventeenth-century Low Countries, is called The Art of Describing. The art of the Italian Renaissance and the "scopic regime" of "Cartesian Perspectivalism" claimed to have established an objective optical order, in which a new concept of space (geometrically isotropic, rectilinear, abstract, and uniform) could be rendered on a two-dimensional surface through a set of transformational rules. In its predilection for geometric forms, clearly defined objects, and seeing the framed view as a stage for significant action, the mathematically regular spatio-temporal order of perspective reinforced the explanatory intent of the scientific world view. Alpers presents Dutch art as more empirical, as content to describe rather than explain. She posits the following oppositions: "attention to many small things versus a few large ones; light reflected off objects versus objects modelled by light and shadow; the surface of objects, their colors and textures, dealt with rather than their placement in a legible space; an unframed image versus one that is clearly framed; one with no clearly situated viewer compared to one with such a viewer." (The Art of Describing, p. 44, quoted in Martin Jay, "The Scopic Regimes of Modernity" in Hal Foster, ed. Vision and Visuality, pp 12-13)

"How did it happen?"
"Why did it happen?"

"In the last resort, all explanation is tautology." Hans Driesch

Explanation as generalization? (is this inductive?)

Explanation requires hypothetical models which suppose a general state of affairs underlying particular phenomena occurring in experience, from the presence of which and its assumed laws the phenomena of the region of fact concerned can be deduced. An explanation "subsumes a particular instance under a law of nature."

Within a positivist tradition of science, a genuine law of nature is conceived as being more than a mere generalization. It is a "nomic universal statement," a hypothetico-deductive statement, not an accidental generalization. According to Cassirer, "The basic law of positivism is that every proposition must be strictly traced back to a simple statement of a fact if it is to have any real and intelligible meaning." (The Problem of Knowledge, Introduction, P.7) "Yet the facts as such are in no sense of the same sort or of the same value but form a series according to the degree of their inherent generality."

For a realist conception of science, the only sure way of distinguishing lawful and accidental universal statements is by seeing why, in the first case, the observed regularity must hold; that is, giving reasons for its necessity. This can only be done by attaching the statement to a theory, which provides a picture of the hypothetical generative mechanism responsible for producing whatever patterns and regularities are observed. (Gerry Webster, Form and Transformation) (cf: experiment.)

According to Rudolf Carnap, it makes little difference to science whether the realm of sense data are considered as mere phenomena of real underlying structures or if, in a positivistic sense, the former are "really given" and the latter are conceptual complexes. In any case, the theoretical constructions must be so constituted as to be "unequivocably coordinated" with the perceptual world.

Gerry Webster describes the relations of description and explanation as dialectical rather than successive, so that a consideration of any possible rational systematics must, from the beginning, take into account the question of explanatory theory. (p.110) Some primary intuition is necessary for the setting up of any law.

Biology entails a great amount of description, finding regularities that can be generalized inductively as "rules" or "emprical laws." These can be characterized as descriptions. What explanatory result, if any, comes from the transformation of empirical diversities into rational, intelligible diversities? For Cassirer, in Substance and Function, this a a first step, which must be followed by understanding and grounding the "laws of structural relations" in terms of a "deeper" causal process.

19th Century Darwinism imposed a new task on historical thought: to perform the whole duty of explanation. insight into the evolution of organisms was supposed to open the way forthwith to the understanding of all problems relating to their structure and physiology. In The Problem of Knowledge, Cassirer criticized Darwinism for imposing upon historical thought "tasks that were quite foreign to its nature and which it was not competent to fulfill." (p.172) "Historical description was supposed to perform at once the whole duty of 'explanation': insight into the evolution of organisms was to open the way forthwith to the understanding of all problems relating to their structure and physiology."

For Cassirer, the metaphysical theories of Driesch and the vitalists resulted from their attempts to use Aristotelian concepts of form for both description and explanation. This required invoking a different form of causality from what we encounter in the inorganic world. Modern Biology has not followed Driesch on this path. But neither has it reverted to the pure "machine theory of life." It was no longer concerned in the first place with the question as to whether organic forms can be explained by means of purely mechanical forces; rather, it placed the emphasis on the fact that they cannot be completely described through pure causal concepts. And for this proof it returned to the category of "wholeness." (The Problem of Form and the Problem of Cause, in The Logic of the Cultural Sciences, p. 93)

Rom Harré, in Principles of Scientific Thinking, points out that one should distinguish between the role of deductive theories and of theoretical models. While the former have generally been held to be central, it is the search for and elaboration of the latter which characterizes the enterprise of science. Harré describes scientific explanation as a "statement-picture complex." First, there are sentences describing the puzzling phenomena needing to be explained. Second, there are sentences describing a model that might explain these phenomena, and third, there are sentences belonging to non-problematic disciplines, or even areas common experience, from which the model is drawn.

Are the sciences of complexity, chaos, and catastrophe descriptions rather than explanations?

Scientific models, according to John Casti, have two primary functions, prediction and explanation, but they do not necessarily do both. Darwin's principle of natural selection, according to Casti, explains but does not predict. (It is not clear whether Casti would make a distinction between models and theories.) If Stuart Kaufmann's theories are correct, that explanation would become tighter, for it would increase the generality, and hence (?) the necessity of evolution. For others, Darwin's theory of Descent does not provide an adequate explanation of the morphological properties of individuals.

"What was the purpose of the happening?"
"What was the significance of the happening?"

Evelyn Fox Keller asks what it means to "make sense of life." For her, "A description of a phenomenon counts as an explanation...if and only if it meets the needs of an individual or a community." (Making Sense of Life, intro. p. 5) For her, these needs vary according to the local needs of "epistemological cultures." They may include prediction, control, and narrative coherence.