2 - Scientific Explanation

A more detailed breakdown of what I was planning to include in the “scientific explanation” section.

Introductory comments

  • Scientific explanation of consciousness is a difficult issue to tackle
  • This is for a number of reasons
  • REASON 1 - Scientific explanation is a difficult issue to tackle in general, even in well-established areas of scientific enquiry. Whilst theories of scientific explanation (e.g. Deductive-Nomological and Causal Mechanical models) have been proposed, none have completely resolved the issue.
  • REASON 2 - The study of consciousness in particular introduces further problems, perhaps most notably the difficulty of getting observation/ evidence in the study of consciousness


The Deductive-Nomological model of scientific explanation

The basic idea of Deductive-Nomological explanation is that: - an event or generalisation is explained by derivation from laws of nature and background conditions - i.e. given laws L1, L2, L3, etc…and background conditions C1, C2, C3, etc… we can deduce that E (where E is a statement of the explanandum)

An example of a scientific ‘D-N’ explanation might therefore be the following:

  • E = mc^2
  • 1 gram of mass was converted to energy
  • Therefore, 9*10e13 J were produced.

There are a number of issues with the D-N model of scientific explanation, including the following:

  • Heavy reliance on laws of nature - if there are no laws, there will not be valid scientific explanations
  • Problem of unique causes - i.e. if an explanandum has only one possible cause, one could infer from the occurrence of the explanandum, that the cause occurred. This puts things the wrong way around.
  • Problem of side effects - i.e. if a particular event E always causes two separate events A and B, then we could infer from the occurrence of A that B occurred. But A did not actually cause B!
  • Problem of pre-emption - i.e. if cause C guarantees an event E, but something happens before cause C that results in the occurrence of E, then the cause C doesn’t seem to explain the event E.
  • Problem of irrelevant conditions - i.e. if Bob takes birth control pills and does not get pregnant, we can cite the ‘law’ saying that nobody who takes birth control pills gets pregnant. This doesn’t seem like a valid explanation.

So the D-N model has not resolved the problems associated with scientific explanation.

The Causal-Mechanical model of scientific explanation

The causal-mechanical model of scientific explanation suggests that an explanation of an event E traces: (i) the processes and interactions that make up the event itself (ii) AND the causal processes and interactions leading up to the event E

Salmon suggests that causal processes can be distinguished from non-causal processes by looking for ‘mark transmissions’, i.e. a causal process is one that is able to transmit a mark in a continuous way.

  • e.g. if a dent is made on the bumper of a car, this dent will be transmitted throughout space and time, even in the absence of further interactions with whatever caused the dent. A moving automobile is therefore a ‘mark transmitter’ and thus a causal process.

Note that the C-M model relies heavily on counterfactuals; the movement, for example, of an undented car would also be a mark transmitter/ causal process, because if one were to mark the car, the mark would be transmitted through space and time.

Solves some of the problems that arise from the D-N approach, but not all (e.g. how can one introduce the concept of mark transmission to explain Bob’s lack of pregnancy?). It also seems a bit strange to introduce something like mark transmission in the first place (seems a bit irrelevant).

As observed for the D-N model, there are a number of issues with the Causal-Mechanical model of scientific explanation, including the following:

  • Action at a distance - i.e. how is mark transmission relevant to Newton’s explanations of concepts like gravity? (Of course there may be no such thing as action at a distance, in which case, we turn to the next objection…)
  • High-level explanations in science - i.e. our explanations of the behaviour of gaseous systems are often ‘high-level’ in that they do not refer to each of the individual gas particles, but rather they generalise over the entirety of the system. How can we reconcile this with the idea of mark transmission?

So the Causal-Mechanical model has not resolved the problems associated with scientific explanation.


The scientific explanation of consciousness, beyond just the problems discussed above, is particularly problematic. One of the major reasons for this is that it is very difficult to get observations/ evidence of consciousness.

Observation/ evidence in the study of consciousness

NOTE: This part I’m not so sure about how to structure…I think I’ll try and upload something tomorrow, once I’ve thought about what would be the clearest line of argument.

The above is all still very much a skeleton of a draft, but I’m interested to know whether it makes sense structurally. If not, I can try to come up with something more sensible. At the moment I kind of feel like it jumps around a lot (even in the Draft Structure ) so I’d like to make it a bit more streamlined if I can. Not really sure.