Let's consider a hypothetical 'Church of the Moon' on a distant planet with a huge moon. The members of this church base all their beliefs about the moon and their religious practices on their holy book of the Moon.

When asked about their beliefs or about the moon itself, they only explain things in terms of what's written in their holy book. For example, if asked why the moon exists, they would say, "Because our holy book says it does." Or if they are asked why this or that happens, they reply - it happens this way and give a reference from their Moon book.

In this context, can their responses be considered 'explanations'? Would this vary depending on different philosophical or scientific perspectives?

Does an explanation need to involve demonstrating how an observation or phenomenon is a consequence of laws, principles, or more fundamental facts? Or can it be simply an account that makes something understandable or clear, in this case, by describing the narrative or beliefs from the book of the Moon?

  • A purpoted "explanation" will be judged to be scientific, and thus a "good" one by the relevant scientific community. Aug 9, 2023 at 17:32
  • There are a wide variety of theories of explanation: Ruben, Salmon, Van Fraassen. But given that it is not actually (true, empirically confirmed, metaphyiscally dependent, etc...) that X is more scientifically/metaphysically more likely because of Y, where Y is in the holy book, it would not constitute an explanation for most.
    – emesupap
    Aug 9, 2023 at 18:13
  • in other words, for most theorists, there is a notion of "correct" explanation. Note that this often requires realist sentiments.
    – emesupap
    Aug 9, 2023 at 18:13
  • See SEP, Scientific Explanation for various philosophical theories of such explanation. On all of them, what is being explained must meaningfully track what explains it, so vacuities like "because God" do not qualify.
    – Conifold
    Aug 9, 2023 at 19:43
  • To explain something is to provide a causal account of it, whether in terms of efficient or final causes. Aug 9, 2023 at 19:46

5 Answers 5


At its broadest, an explanation is anything that answers a 'why' question. Explanations can be of many different types, depending on the subject matter, and explanations can be good, bad or indifferent. The most common kinds of explanations are scientific, and in the case of human behaviour, teleological.

Even within the realm of scientific explanation, there are also different kinds. "Why does water boil when heated?" is a request for an explanation of physical behaviour. "Why are whales mammals?" is a request for an explanation of the classification of living things. "Why does the Himalayan mountain range exist?" is a request for an explanation of a geological phenomenon. "Why do fools fall in love?" is a request for an explanation of human behaviour. Scientific explanations are often reductive in nature and seek to explain complex or macroscopic phenomena in terms of simpler or microscopic ones.

In the context of human behaviour, we often request teleological explanations. "Why did you do that?" is a request for a reason or an end or a motivation, not a request for how the nerves and muscles in a human body work. Even explanations of human actions can be of different kinds. For example, "Why did you spill your drink on the floor?" might be answered in several distinct ways. "I was curious to see how quickly it would evaporate." "Other people were doing so, and I decided to join in." "I was making a libation to the gods." "Someone jogged my arm." "I was drunk."

We also often ask for explanations of beliefs. "Why do you think that?" is normally a request for reasons or grounds for a belief. It is not a request for a causal explanation of a cognitive state. Also, we can ask for explanations of obligations. "Why should I do that?" is typically a request for an explanation of how an action fits into a moral framework or how it can be assimilated to an accepted moral paradigm.

Some explanations are better than others. To explain things by reference to a holy text is a poor quality explanation. It is only of value to devotees of the religion. A good scientific explanation has the same qualities as a good scientific theory, i.e. consistency, coherence, clarity, simplicity, comprehensiveness, lack of adhocness, fit with empirical data, consilience, testability, high predictive value, high practical value, and maybe others. An explanation that just says, "Because God says so" is adhoc and unsatisfactory.

There are some Stanford Encyclopedia entries that cover these topics in more detail. Scientific explanation. Reasons for Action. Metaphysical explanation.


To explain something is to provide a causal account of it, whether in terms of efficient or final cause.


Q: In this context, can the (moon people’s) responses be considered 'explanations'?

A: No - If they reference their moon god as a cause, however, then it’s an explanation.

Q: Would this vary depending on different philosophical or scientific perspectives?

A: No

Q: Does an explanation need to involve demonstrating how an observation or phenomenon is a consequence of laws, principles, or more fundamental facts?

A: No - Here is an illustration. Q: “Why did you go Grandma’s house? What is the explanation?” A: “I went there because she made cookies and I wanted to eat them. The idea of me eating the cookies is the cause that led to all the behaviors that led up to my arriving at Grandma’s house”. (Final cause) All of this is in Kant, incidentally.

Q: Or can it be simply an account that makes something understandable or clear, in this case, by describing the narrative or beliefs from the book of the Moon?

A: No

Such is my position.

  • Logic involves non-causal justification. So does mathematics.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 11, 2023 at 16:53
  • Yes, it does. But I cannot immediately see how they would qualify as counter examples. A logical and mathematical proof would need to qualify as an explanation. In all my years of teaching logic, I don’t recall ever referring to a proof as an explanation. Aug 11, 2023 at 17:41
  • You've never heard a logical explsnation..? How about that you can regard the Earth as the centre of the universe, but that involves massive complexity from solar system epicycles on outwards, that are obviated from just accepting the explanation that it isn't.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 11, 2023 at 22:48

First, thank you for a terrific question! To answer it, let's first clarify what is the object of explanation -- what is it that we are trying to explain? I would propose that the answer is this: We explain our ideas.

Now, ideas come in two distinct flavours. John Locke referred to the two as the simple and the complex ideas respectively. The simple ideas are statistical models encompassing a person's lifetime of experiences and, as such, they are unexplainable. An example of a simple idea is philosophers' favorite, "What is a chair?" Or what is a woman, etc.

The statistical processing behind simple ideas occurs entirely in our subconsciousness. Only the bottom line of that processing is communicated to our conscious awareness as a feeling -- as intuition. We don't know how do we know that we are looking at a chair, we just do! Or, to be more precise, we feel confident that that things is, in fact, a chair. So confident, this intuition feels like knowledge (and, therefore, explainable), even though it still is just a guess. And, of course, not every intuition is this certain.

Our complex ideas is a very different animal. I am going to refer to them simply as models because they are not merely imitating knowledge -- they are it, the knowledge. Collectively, they represent a virtual reality that we visualize in order to understand how the real thing -- the real world -- works. Each such model is a virtual machine -- it has moving parts, and it performs work producing virtual outcomes that match the outcomes we see in real life. And the model's purpose is to simulate a real-life process that produces those outcomes -- for example, it could be a model of the solar system, or of the banking system, or of a mental condition. Or a model of the human mind.

This, then, is what we are trying to describe whenever we explain things -- the models that we visualize. And the purpose of the explanation is for the listener to reconstruct the same models in their minds. It is not an easy task, trying to describe a vision with words. That's why visual aids, such as diagrams or animations, can be of great help. Untimely, the communication is successful when the listener sees in their minds what the speaker sees in theirs; and when the listener succeeds at fitting that new model into their larger simulation -- their understanding -- of the Reality.


well, i can't see your 'explanation' could be wrong, explanation is exactly what you think, explanation is to give it idea about what it is, how it is, where it is, when it is, why it is. well it's a semantic thing, it could mean to give easier way to understand something as when you teach a 10 years old math but with some kids analogy, it could also mean in mathematics the explanation of this phenomena is like this. but it's basically the same thing, it's a spoon to the word 'understanding', to understand something there would need some explanation. this is the analogy, why someone so handsome? well because his face is proportional and all that, how come proportional is handsome? well because blablablabla, you would think that those two are different, the first one you would think that it is an explanation, and the second one you would think that the second one is a help to stupid person, but actually both are exactly what explanation is, i told you that it is the bridge to understanding, anything that give understanding is an explanation. did you see the pattern there?


The word 'explanation' has several meanings. The meaning you have in mind is an account of the reasons or causes of whatever is being explained. There is no absolute requirement for an explanation to attain any particular standard of quality, as you will readily conclude if you read some of the explanations of philosophical topics elsewhere on this site.

If you want to distinguish different types of explanation based on their relevant qualities, you can do so by adopting the linguistic tactic of employing adjectives. For example, you might talk of explanations that are satisfactory, scientific, logical, unconvincing, biased, self-consistent, unjustified, meaningless, compelling, obscure, superficial, incomplete, rigorous and so on.

Typically you might consider an explanation to be satisfactory if it accounts for all essential aspects of the matter being explained, it is easy to understand, it is logical and free from self-contradictions, it is consistent with our wider knowledge of the world, it does not involve unsubstantiated assumptions, and so on. Very often it is impossible to find an explanation that meets all these criteria, which is why, for example, we have juries to weigh up the conflicting explanations given by prosecutors and defenders, and why you will find endless unresolvable arguments about such things as the meaning of quantum mechanics.

The argument you cited for the existence of the huge moon would be unlikely to be considered an acceptable one by most philosophers, but some people on the distant planet might be sufficiently gullible to swallow it, since all kinds of nonsense are accepted as being true on Earth.

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