Depth: The Blurb

Depth proposes a theory of scientific explanation and understanding that revises and augments the familiar causal approach to explanation (that is, the approach on which explaining a phenomenon is producing a story about how the phenomenon was or is causally produced).

What is revised is the test for explanatorily relevant causal information: Depth discards the usual criterion of counterfactual dependence in favor of a criterion that turns on a process of progressive abstraction away from a fully detailed, physical causal story.

The augmentations include the introduction of a new, non-causal explanatory relevance relation – entanglement – and an independent theory of the role of black-boxing and functional specification in explanation.

The abstraction-centered notion of difference-making leads to a rich causal treatment of many aspects of explanation that have been either ignored or handled inadequately by earlier causal approaches. These include:

  1. The explanation of laws and other regularities, with particular attention to the explanation of physically contingent high level laws,
  2. Idealization in explanation, and
  3. Probabilistic explanation in deterministic systems, as in statistical physics, evolutionary biology, medical science, and social science.

The result is an account of explanation that has especially significant consequences for the higher level sciences: biology, psychology, economics, and other social sciences. Explanations in such sciences tend to disregard the details of underlying causal processes, by pointedly ignoring them (abstraction), by asserting contrary to the truth that they are not present (idealization), or by treating them as errors or fluctuations (in statistical models). Depth understands this apparent slighting of the causal as issuing from a concern to pick out only features of a process that make a difference to, or are entangled with features that make a difference to, the causal production of the phenomenon to be explained.