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
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pages, is badly out of date and gives the appearance of having been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 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
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