Colloquium: Jan. 25, 2019

Speaker: Dr. Carl Craver, Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology Program, Washington State University in St. Louis

Title: The Ontic Conception and Idealization

Friday, January 25th at 2:30pm FRA 152



What is a scientific explanation? The ontic conception of scientific explanation has been described as a fundamental starting assumption for philosophical attempts to answer this question by a significant minority of philosophers of science, including Alberto Coffa, David Lewis, Wesley Salmon, Michael Strevens, and me. Salmon somewhat enigmatically expressed the ontic conception as committed to the following:

“The linguistic entities that are called ‘explanations’ are statements reporting the actual explanation. Explanations, in this (ontic) view, are fully objective and, where explanations of nonhuman facts are concerned, they exist whether or not anyone ever discovers or describes them. Explanations are not epistemically relativized, nor (outside of the realm of human psychology) do they have psychological components, nor do they have pragmatic dimensions.” (1989, 133).

This view is taken by many to be a non-starter, as a transparent absurdity, and as irrelevant to the practice of science. I show that these objections rest on a failure to fully appreciate either what the ontic conception asserts or which philosophical problem the ontic conception was called upon to solve. Thus clarified, the view faces the challenge of explaining the ubiquitous practice of using idealized models to explain. The ubiquitous practice of idealization in explanation shows that explanations need not be true: idealized explanations are not truly objective and do not exist whether or not anyone ever discovers or describes them. They are epistemically relativized, have pragmatic dimensions, and arguably depend on human psychology. I argue that this objection also rests on a failure to fully appreciate the separation between models and explanations the ontic conception enjoins us to except.