David, you have this concept of explanation, which is a normal sounding word, but you use it
to really probe not just the fundamental aspects of reality, but where humanity can go in
So I'd like to understand what you mean by explanation.
An explanation is a statement of what is there in reality, and how it works and why, basically.
But the important distinction is between a good explanation and a bad explanation because
explanations are too a penny, but good explanations are extremely hard to come by, and
this is what the growth of knowledge is actually about.
So a good explanation is one that is hard to vary while still explaining what it purports
Suppose you're watching a conjuring trick and you're trying to explain what's happening.
Now, a bad example of a bad explanation would be, well, it's actually magic, and the
reason that that's a bad explanation is that you could apply that same explanation to
absolutely anything, including to the conjuring trick happening a different way or to a
So those, those that claim about reality that it really is magic is not actually an explanation
Oh, yes, another example of a bad explanation just to show you that a bad explanation
It's just maybe completely inadequate is to say, well, the conjurer did something.
So that may be enlightening for a person who believes in magic to tell them that, in fact,
it was the conjurer that did it, but it doesn't explain the trick.
If we take a biology with the laws of physics and trying to explain things in a natural
world, we could say, what is the origin of species, what is the origin of adaptations
You could say, well, it's just caused by atoms.
Now, that's true enough, but it doesn't explain.
The explanation is Darwin's theory of evolution or rather the modern neo-d Darwinist theory
So you've now differentiated good explanations from bad explanations.
How does this supply, for example, explanations in science, normally have a reductionist
approach, which says that in order to explain what's on higher levels, like we're human
beings, you have to understand systematic organs and the organs, you have to understand
cellular structure and go cellular structure biochemistry and then physical chemistry and
down to physics and fundamental physics, and now you have a complete explanation.
It's historically understandable because the physical sciences, especially physics, were
the ones that developed fastest, and it so happens that the best explanations in physics
are have been, at any rate, from the ground up, from space and time, elementary particles,
And it's never been the case, even within physics, let alone in other sciences, that all
And in fact, my basic principle, if you like, that we should be looking for good explanations,
which I think is the foundation of scientific rationality, implies that we must not have
that prejudice, because if we do find an explanation that's on a higher level of emergence,
say, and we find a fundamental law at the higher level of emergence, and it's a good explanation
that it's simply irrational to reject it just because it doesn't have the form, which historically
we have been taught is the one we should pursue.
So by really understanding the deep power of explanation, you become more open to different
That is exactly right, and I think with deep explanations, it's nearly always the case
that when somebody finds a new and much deeper theory, it's not only a better explanation
that they've found, it's also a better mode of explanation.
So for example, in physics, Einstein's explanation of gravity, in terms of curved space
time, was not just a new explanation of gravity, that would have been something like
Newton's laws, but instead of an inverse square law, an inverse 2.03 or something,
law, it's not like that, it's a different kind of explanation.
It's saying that space and time aren't which in Newton's theory are immutable background
entities that aren't part of the theory, become, in Einstein's theory, dynamical objects
which buck and weave and explain all sorts of things apart from just the emotion of planets.
What I like about your approach to bad explanations is that they're not only false, but
they disturb your ability to even make progress or to find out what are good explanations.
Actually, that definition is what I call bad philosophy, so bad philosophy is a subset
Bad philosophy is false philosophy is not harmful.
In fact, error is the standard state of human knowledge that we can expect to find error
everywhere, including in the theories that we think that we most cherish as true.
But there has grown up, especially since the Enlightenment, ironically, since good explanations
have begun to take over, bad explanations have become worse, and bad philosophy has dominated
Bad philosophy is philosophy whose effect is to close off the growth of knowledge in
The kind of thing that says not just so and so is true when, in fact, it is false, but
you must think about so and so, or it's bad to investigate so and so.
Logical positivism is a prime example of a bad philosophy.
Which restricts your ability to even address questions as meaningless because it's not
either sense data or logic or something like that.
So it's saying that trying to understand what the physics is of unobserved objects is
Now that means really that it's trying to reduce us to an anthropocentric worldview
rather like the medieval worldview because it's saying that the only things that are worthy
But of course human experiences are themselves to be understood in terms of unexperienced
So the whole philosophy collapses and it in addition, it declares itself to be meaningless
because this distinction that it draws applies to itself as well and rules out positivism
The ones that are closest to my mind are the ones that have impinged on physics.
So the positivism, logical positivism was one example of that.
But when in recent times statistical analysis of experimental results has started to use terminology
that assumes that certain things will never be worth studying.
So for example, the very term explanation has come to mean a mathematical formula.
They say a mathematical formula explains the results.
But since the results are anthropocentric and they are not reality, they're just a tiny
sliver of reality through which we are trying to understand the unobserved reality.
This idea that a formula is an explanation prevents real explanations from being discovered.
So it's almost not just circular reasoning but it confines you within an area that you're
I think that all progress historically and today comes from the quest for good explanations.
That is explanations that are hard to vary without what while still accounting for what
This principle, one of the reasons I like this principle is that not only does it explain
what the criterion for success is in science where it leads to things like the principle
of testability of theories because a test constrains the explanation so that it's hard
But it also applies outside physics in philosophy, in epistemology, in metaphysics and so on.
The same thing applies and even beyond that in political philosophy, moral philosophy and
aesthetics, the same principle applies everywhere and draws a distinction between ideas
that have a chance of making progress and ideas that have no chance of making progress.