I am trying to understand the relationship between Scientific Explanation and Intelligibility / Understanding. I believe the former is grounded in the Metaphysics of Causation while the latter is grounded in Epistemology.

Is my belief correct and what is the relationship between these four fields of study? Is there something at the core between these areas that I am not considering?

My motivation for this question is to understand a framework to figure out how creating explanations of complex models or having inherently interpretable models relies upon (at least in part) being able to teach how to create those models in the first place.

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    – J D
    Dec 5, 2019 at 2:15
  • 1
    Niels Bohr is said to have claimed that in language, the noncommuting complimentary state variables (like position and momentum in quantum mechanics) were wahrheit (truth) and klarheit (clarity). Dec 5, 2019 at 4:25
  • I think I understand the point being made for inherently interpretable models, as in the physics example. But now if we are given a complex model that explains reality, what does it mean to make an inherently interpretable model that explains the complex model?
    – Joseph
    Dec 5, 2019 at 19:03
  • Explanation is the unfolding of a certain interpretation, while interpretability is solely determined by your theory's categoricity... May 2, 2021 at 22:11

1 Answer 1


Scientific Explanation and Intelligibility or Understanding. I believe the former is grounded in the Metaphysics of Causation while the latter is grounded in Epistemology.

You have good intuitions, but it's a little more complicated than that. For instance, the sciences are certainly concerned with argumentation forms such as abduction, explanation, and scientific induction. These forms have a property in common known as defeasibility. Since, you have an AI tag, let me try to explain this to you in the language of machine learning.

According to Russell and Norvig, supervised learning is generally described as taking a hypothesis space H of hypotheses each h of and determining some function f' that maps causal pairs of (x,f(x)) which are data each s in the data set S such that f' approximates f presumed to exist. (If you're a scientific realist!) Theories are thus built by determining good probabilistic and deterministic explanations (f') from H that are presumed to represent the external state of affairs (f). In other words build theories from hypotheses that correspond to reality, thus making theories true as well as using true theories to decide if propositions are true. It's cyclical. There's a lot going on there, so let's unpack a bit.

In this AI instantiation of the problem of induction, one has an analog between causation and deterministic and probabilistic mappings between domain and codomain values, so yes, causality and explanation are linked because theories play the role of f' and seek to explain how change occurs reliably, predictability, etc. But, the question of what constitutes a good f' and how to find it are controversial and often contextual by subject matter hence leading to the demarcation problem of science. The act of the induction itself IS epistemological because the algorithm by which f' is determined to approximate f from h is the analog of epistemic attitude. Why should h1 be better than h2 is value-laden! Some might claim that the h1 and h2 are equally sufficient and no choice can be made. This is the idea of the underdetermination of theory. The question of what constitutes x is Quine's ontological commitment. What are the best x's and how do they relate to each other is controversial. And how BEST to approximate f is value-laden based upon, in machine learning, the metric of performance often tied to quality-quantity-speed issues inherent in theory of computation. This is pragmatism at its finest!

So, to the point. The h candidate for f' to represent f is the same thing as saying competing hypotheses vie to be the theory that represents reality, and that the causal relations and properties between ontological primitives which include both attributes and relationships change from past to present (and eventually to future) in the same way that x's in S relate to each other by set-theoretic definition such that at t1 they map to f(x)'s (reinterpreted as x's) in S at t2 so one can predict f(x)'s at t3. It's a gestalt! One cannot have functions independent of definition and mappings and elements and sets anymore than one can disentangle explanation, syntax, semantics, causation, and truth. They're all interrelated, and not structured towards each other in neat parallels.

In other words, causation, explanation, justification, and understanding are all interrelated aspects of epistemology. A theory must be coherent and meaningful and explain the relationships between definitions and observations and to determine which propositions of the theory are valid, they must be compared to that which they correspond to, be examined for coherence among themselves, and measured pragmatically in all theories. This is the Quinian doctrine of holism and touches upon notions like atomicity and molecularity of propositions.

My recommendation to a good start would be to get a copy of Blackwell's Companion to the Philosophy of Science and do a lot of reading in the SEP to explore the nature of science and bone up on what exactly is epistemological, ontological, and axiological in character.

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    I can create an arbitrary complex model to explain reality. At the same time, that model may not be intelligible or easily understood. Is that not an explanation without understanding, and what does it mean to make such an explanation intelligible?
    – Joseph
    Dec 5, 2019 at 18:58
  • There seems to be a causal structure (in reality) underlying the complex structure (of the model) for which results are intelligible. But, at the same time, everything in the model causes its explanation...
    – Joseph
    Dec 5, 2019 at 18:59
  • Some philosophers believe that the structure of reality is unknowable since it is mediated through the limits of our finite and fallible senses; as far as explanation and intelligibility, one needn't look any further than trying read Kant in his native tounge if one only speaks English. Unintelligble meaning is just a song played on the wrong frequency for a radio receiver.
    – J D
    Dec 5, 2019 at 21:39
  • But if I do not understand Kant, doesn't that mean he is not intelligible to me? Similarly, if I am able to read set notation but not understand algebra. It is only once I am taught algebra that I understand it. Does the act of teaching exercises something relating causality and explanation, creating understanding through intelligibility?
    – Joseph
    Dec 6, 2019 at 1:49
  • I think we want to know what it means to explain intelligibly an unintelligible explanation. Such a relation would allow us to understand if the unintelligible explanation is justified (or plausible) and we may derive theories that in and of themselves are intelligible explanations.
    – Joseph
    Dec 6, 2019 at 1:51

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