This book review appeared in Canadian Philosophical Reviews (November 1986), Vol. 6, no. 9, pp. 456-458.

Fred Wilson
Explanation, Causation and Deduction
The University of Western Ontario Series in
Philosophy of Science, vol. 26
Dordrecht: D. Reidel (1985)
Pp. xviii + 385.
ISBN 90-277-1856-3.

Wilson has returned to a debate whose heyday was the fifties and early sixties. He staunchly aligns himself with the deductivists, philosophers such as Popper, Hempel, Bergmann, and Braithwaite, who argued that scientific and historical explanations presuppose general laws and statements of initial conditions from which explanandum statements are validly deduced.

In 1961, at the height of the controversy, Weingartner stepped back from the fray and assessed it astutely: 'what appears to be a dispute about the precise nature of historical explanation is in fact the product of a disagreement about the nature of philosophical method' ('The Quarrel about Historical Explanation', The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 58, no. 2, Jan. 19, 1961).

Wilson, apparently, does not subscribe to Weingartner's diagnosis, for he proceeds as if there were only one possible starting point: 'I take it to be a part of the idea of a scientific explanation that … the occurrence of the initial conditions somehow necessitates the occurrence of the explanandum' (76).

This motivating conception was fiercely attacked in the fifties and sixties by Scriven, Collins, Dray, etc. But if it was a subject of dispute then, two subsequent developments have made it more suspect now. The first was the recognition within the deductivist camp itself of the cogency and ineliminability of certain explanations containing statistical premises. But, clearly, arguments that include statistical premises do not necessitate their conclusions, do not show, as Wilson requires, that 'the explanandum must occur' (76). The other development has been occasioned by the explosion of research on Expert Systems. Critics of Expert Systems have strongly challenged the assumption that explanation and understanding are achieved only by subsumption under general rules (laws). They have argued that human comprehension of situations often proceeds by recognizing directly – i.e. without the mediation of generalities – similarities between unfamiliar and familiar situations.

Wilson ignores both of these later developments. The result is that his opening defense of the deductive model, encompassing the first 85 pages, is badly out of date and gives the appearance of having been written a generation ago.

The book picks up considerably when it moves from a general defense to a rebuttal of specific objections to the deductive model. Nonetheless serious problems remain.

To the objection that there are explanations in which true laws do not figure, Wilson allows that 'imperfect laws' can go proxy for perfect (process) laws. To the objection that arguments whose premises include 'imperfect laws' do not provide explanations, Wilson allows that explanations come in degrees of goodness, and that valid inferences from 'imperfect laws', while offering only imperfect knowledge, can nonetheless be explanations. To the objection that the principle of predictability – viz. that all explanations could be used to yield predictions – rejects many bona fide explanations, Wilson allows that 'the essential idea of "prediction" is not that of an inference to the future, but the more general idea … of an inference from the known to the hitherto unknown' (137), and later, 'All the deductive model requires is that prediction be possible, i.e. … that the statement of initial conditions be … true' (163). And so it goes. Wilson is able to accommodate nearly all counterexamples within his liberalized conception of deductive explanation. The trouble is, however, that the cumulative effect of such maneuvers, far from strengthening the theory, in fact weakens it, removing from it much of the boldness and rigor it originally promised.

In sections 3.2 and 3.3, Wilson turns his attention to rebutting counterexamples (of e.g. Kim, Omer, etc.) which allegedly undermine the adequacy of the formal criteria laid down by earlier deductivists. It is here, with in-house critics who are operating within the same framework as himself, that Wilson is at his best. Even so, the upshot is unexpected: '… neither tinkering … nor informed adjustment will yield a set of formal criteria capable of eliminating all … counter-examples' (207). To contain the damage, Wilson argues that formal criteria must be supplemented with the principle of predictability. Where earlier it had seemed that Wilson was weakening the principle, it is now clear that Wilson has reverted to the original, strong version. But Wilson's reviving the principle of predictability can only serve to renew the anti-deductivists' complaints that the deductive model illegitimately denies scientific status to, e.g., evolutionary theory, after-the-fact explanations of stock market fluctuations, etc.

In the end, dialogue between Wilson and the anti-deductivists breaks down. 'Explanation', for the anti-deductivists, is a success term: a putative explanation which does not impart understanding to the person seeking an explanation, is no explanation at all. But Wilson's goal is to construct a 'normative' theory, and so he prescribes limits on the philosophy of science which explicitly preclude any such consideration: '[whether an explainee will accept an explanation] is of no interest to the philosophy of science, which is interested in explanations and their relative worth, and not whether they can be successfully communicated' (175). This suggested circumscribing of the philosophy of science is reminiscent of an analogous claim sometimes made about logic, viz. that logic should concern itself only with formal aspects of language. Again, deep philosophical differences are at play. Many contemporary philosophers – rightly or wrongly – repudiate such injunctions, arguing that they impose arbitrary limitations on the philosophical enterprise. Such philosophers will not accept Wilson's narrow conception of the philosophy of science.

Wilson's view of the history of science is similarly bound to raise serious objections. Wilson admires and commends Veblen's notion of 'idle curiosity' which he explicates as interest in 'explanations for their own sake' (xii), in contrast to '"practical research" which has some "application" in mind' (81). But Wilson's identification of the historical origins of 'idle curiosity' is implausible: '… only since Galileo has idle curiosity ever been a motive in the search for lawful knowledge' (81). Historians might object, for example, that Aristotle's Physics, and Ptolemy's Almagest were not entirely motivated by 'practical applications'.

Content aside, the book shows little evidence of having been properly copyedited or proofread. The prose is often infelicitous, and typos abound.

In short, this book is not of the elevated quality of its progenitors, the classic writings, e.g., of Popper and of Hempel; still less does it supersede those seminal works.


Simon Fraser University

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