Explanation (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
When one wants to understand something, one asks for an explanation. In principle, everything can be the object of explanation. Some explanations, such as in classification and interpretation, explain what something is: What is a whale? It is a mammal; Could you explain the movie Dr. Strangelove to me? It is about the Cold War. Some explanations explain how something works or how something is possible: How does the door open? Press the button; How is it possible that some children survive the most cruel experiences? There are adults who love them and care about them. Finally, some explanations explain why something happens: Why did the aircraft crash? Because one of its motors came loose. In all three cases, the explanation is supposed to yield knowledge. Concerning the why-questions, however, not all are requests for an explanation and, thus, not every answer to a why-question yields knowledge. Some why-questions express the wish to find consolation (Why have you abandoned me?) or the wish to get rid of prejudices (Why should men and women not get the same salary for the same job?). In the science and religion discussion it is intensely debated whether religious answers to such a question as "Why is the universe so special and finely tuned for life?" are explanations, yielding knowledge, or whether they have other functions in the believer's life.
The covering law model
Quite often explanations of why something is the case are related to causation. Other explanations are functional or teleological, as they are also called. The white fur of the polar bear is explained by its camouflage function. A common view is that those explanations actually are causal explanations referring to past causes in evolution that led to the natural selection of the biological trait in question. Causal and functional or teleological explanations are seen as two different variants of the so-called covering law model.
According to the covering law model, an explanation of an event consists in subsuming it under a causal law: All metals expand when heated; this rod is metallic and it was heated; therefore, it expanded. There are four conditions for such a scientific explanation:
- The explanandum (The rod has expanded.) has to follow logically from the explanans (All metals expand when heated; this rod is metallic and it was heated.). Only if the explanandum can be deduced from the initial circumstances and the applied causal laws, the explanandum is really explained and justifies the prediction of a similar event, even if it has not been observed yet.
- The applied causal laws (All metals expand when heated.) have to be laws proper and not only all-statements. It is not an explanation to say: "All apples in this basket are red; this apple is from the basket; therefore, the apple is red."
- The explanans needs to have empirical content; it should be possible, at least in principle, to confirm or falsify the explanans through experience. Without this condition explanations like God's wrath as the cause of historical catastrophes could not be excluded from science.
- The explanans has to be true. If it were false, the implication between the explanans and any explanandum would be true for logical reasons and the explanandum would not be explained.
Although the covering law model cannot be applied everywhere in its strict form, it is supposed to represent an ideal that at least all explanations in the natural sciences that are answers to why-questions ought to strive to attain. It satisfies one feature that one would expect of such explanations, namely, that it explain why a certain event occurred and not another. By subsuming an event under causal laws, it is shown that the event had to occur. The price to be paid for this is determinism, excluding the possibility of exceptions. One way of coping with this difficulty is to allow deterministic as well as nondeterministic explanations. Thus, the explanation of a patient's death from lung cancer may take the form of a statistical explanation referring to the frequency of dying from lung cancer and smoking heavily. According to this variant of the covering law model, the explanandum is not deduced from the explanans. It is supposed to follow with an inductive probability. The reference is not to exceptionless laws but to statistical regularities concerning events and to tendencies concerning human actions.
Another model of explanation that is supposed to be an alternative to the covering law model in, for instance, historical research consists in explaining an event as the result of human action by rational reconstruction. First, an event is shown to be an intentional act that the agent in question has undertaken in accordance with beliefs that seemed reasonable in the situation at issue. Second, the critical examination of the agent's beliefs, whether true or reasonable, contributes to explain why the action resulted in precisely that event. So, in some historical cases, the fact that the belief in the enemy's strength was false may explain why the army was defeated in a certain battle.
Explanation in the science-religion dialogue
One frequently discussed question in theology and in philosophy of religion concerns the relationship between scientific and religious explanations: whether they are on the same categorical level or belong to completely different domains. The difference between scientific and religious explanations is sometimes identified by pointing out that science causes questions that go beyond its own power to answer, for instance, the question "Why is the universe so special and finely tuned for life?" Since this question is not a question formed within science, it cannot be answered scientifically. Instead, the question is a metaphysical why-question, wherefore it can be answered, for instance, theistically by saying "because the universe is created by God who wills that it be so." Since it is not always clear to what extent cosmological theories about the beginning of the universe are metaphysically laden, it is also not clear to what extent the theistic answer competes with scientific explanations or with the metaphysical aspects of some of these theories.
See also CAUSALITY, PRIMARY AND SECONDARY; CAUSATION
Clayton, Philip D. Explanations from Physics to Theology: An Essay in Rationality and Religion. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.
Collingwood, Robin George. The Idea of History, rev. edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
Dray, William H. Laws and Explanation in History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957.
Gregersen, Niels Henrik, and van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel, eds. Rethinking Theology and Science: Six Models for the Current Dialogue. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998.
Hempel, Carl G. Aspects of Scientific Explanation and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Science. New York: Free Press, 1965.
Polkinghorne, John Charlton. Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion. London: Triangle, 1994.
van Fraassen, Bas C. The Scientific Image. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
von Wright, Georg Henrik. Explanation and Understanding. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.
Explanation (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
What causes one human being to kill another, not for anything the victim has done but simply because the victim belongs to a particular religion, ethnic or communal group? Such behavior confounds rationality, and analysts are forced to focus on either identifying the broad macrophenomena and the structural-cultural factors that correlate with genocide or on specifying the psychological processes that might contribute to genocide.
The most frequently cited precipitating factors or facilitating conditions that correlate with genocide and ethnic violence are political unrest and economic upheavals. The Holocaustertainly the best known genocides usually "explained" by reference to the political dislocations resulting from World War I, especially the ensuing breakup of political empires, the punitive Versailles Treaty, a weak Weimar Republic, and the economic depression that gripped the world but which was particularly acute in Germany. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire (which gave rise to the Armenian genocide) and the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the USSR (which was followed by ethnic cleansing in Bosnia) provide further illustrations of macro-events contributing to genocide.
Beyond this, genocide occurs most frequently in plural societies in which there are diverse racial, ethnic, and/or religious groups that exhibit persistent and pervasive communal cleavages. A strong overlap between such cleavages and political and socio-economic inequities, plus a history of conflict between the diverse groups, also encourages genocide and ethnic violence. Genocide rarely occurs in political regimes that are not totalitarian or authoritarian. This was evident during the Holocaust and in the recent genocides in the Balkans and Africa (Rwanda-Burundi, the Sudan). The isolation and secrecy that accompany totalitarian regimes that lack a free press are major contributors, enabling elites to manipulate internal tensions and turn them toward violence. Such structural-cultural factors form the foundation for another category of explanation.
The richest and most varied explanations of genocide are found at a more personal level, all focusing on the psychology of the genocidalist. The psychoanalysis of genocidal leaders such as Hitler has led some scholars, such as Alan Bullock, to focus attention on their tendency toward neurotic-psychopathic personalities. The argument here is that certain people have a deep-seated and psycho-pathological need that leads them toward genocide, either through the elite manipulation of masses or the actual, personal commission of genocide. Other scholars, including Theodor Adorno and Bob Altemeyer, focus on the extent to which an entire society can exhibit patterns of behavior, such as child-rearing or authority relations in school, that result in certain kinds of psychodynamics, such as the authoritarian personality, that encourage genocide.
The work of scholars such as Daniel J. Goldhagen still accept explanations of genocide that are painted in such broad cultural terms, but most social psychologists and historians, including Stanley Milgram and Christopher Browning, find the situation more complex, arguing that situational factors can turn even an ordinary person into a genocidalist. The fundamental assumption for these scholars is a median personality around which a great deal of variance occurs. Analysts in this school focus on external stimuli and understanding how situational or contextual effects can trigger genocide in ordinary people.
Studies of social cognition find all political behavior strongly influenced by how people think about themselves and the social world, especially how people select, remember, interpret, and use social information to make judgments and decisions. Attitudes, schemas and social representations all offer ways in which the definition of social identities of self and others might be conceptualized, and provide the building blocks upon which more detailed theories of socio-political identity and prejudice are built. Such approaches include social role theories focusing on the "internalized role designations corresponding to the social location of persons" (Stryker, 1987, p. 84) and stress the shared behavioral expectations that become salient. Such explanations have been offered to explain the traditional "I was just following orders" excuse for genocide. Robert Jay Lipton's intriguing 1986 study of Nazi doctors turned the concept of social roles upside down by asking: How could doctors and health officials, dedicated to saving lives, utilize their knowledge to perfect killing? The answer desire to protect the German body politic from infestation by inferior and diseased untermenschenuggests how traditional social roles can be utilized to lead people to genocide.
Other social psychologists focus more on the cognitive process of drawing boundaries and categorizing individuals in conflict situations. Social-identity theory and self-categorization literature suggest that perceptions of competition for scarce resources reinforce ingroup/out-group distinctions but are not necessary conditions for in-group favoritism and inter-group discrimination to occur. The social identity theory employed by Michael A. Hogg and Dominic Abrams and based on Henri Tajfel's "minimal group paradigm" has found that in situations of group decision making, people tend to favor their own membership group over out-groups, even when these groups are artificial laboratory constructs and competition for resources between groups is absent. Previous perspectives in group psychology, exemplified by the work of Muzafer Sherif, explained group differentiation in terms of real or perceived competition between in-group and out-groups, but Tajfel's research suggests that the mere formation of otherwise meaningless groups may produce in-group favoritism. Tajfel argues that groups provide their members with positive self-esteem, and that group-members are therefore motivated to enhance their image of the in-group in relation to relevant outgroups.
The Self-Categorization Theory of Group Formation
A 1987 study by John C. Turner and Michael Hogg suggests that the formation of psychological groups is driven by the cognitive elaboration of one's self-identity in comparison with others and implies mechanisms for the formation of political preferences. The salient level of self-categorization and the determination of which schemas and categories are evoked by a given political object or objects will interact to shape a person's political preferences in relation to that political object. The key assumptions of Turner's self-categorization theory of group formation suggest that self-categorizations are hierarchical. In other words, the category of "human being" functions as the most inclusive and superordinate group level, below which in-group/out-group categories based on social comparisons of gender and ethnicity or other dimensions form an intermediate level categorization, and there are subordinate level categories that distinguish individuals as unique.
Turner's framework assumes that the cognitive representation of the self is a multi-faceted affair, and that different portions of that self become salient in different contexts. The theory hypothesizes that factors enhancing the relevance of in-group/out-group categorizations increase the perceived identity between self and in-group members, thus depersonalizing individual self-perception on the stereotypical dimensions that define the relevant in-group membership. This makes the depersonalization of self-perceptions the critical process underlying group behavior, such as stereotyping, ethnocentrism, cooperation and altruism, emotional contagion, collective action, shared norms, and social influence processes.
Members of groups who are perceived as different from the self will tend to be seen in terms of stereotypes. Self-categorization theory builds upon social identity theory by arguing that the self-categorization with a cognitive representation of the group results in the depersonalization of self and the homogenization of both the in-group and the out-group, based on dimensions that reflect the prototypicality or stereotypicality of members of each group. Thousands of experiments underlying social identity theoryor instance, those conducted by A. Gagnon and R. Y. Bourhisave consistently shown that individuals will identify with the in-group, support group norms, and derogate out-group members along stereotypical lines, even when there is no individual gain at stake. The introduction of "superordinate goals," which is posited as a solution by some realistic conflict theorists, can be seen instead as the cognitive reclassification of social identity by individuals into another social identity category.
This cognitive reclassification of groups may provide the key to ending genocide, prejudice, and ethnic violence; Serbs and Croats can think of themselves as Yugoslavs. Preliminary empirical work suggests cognitive categorization may affect all participants in genocide, not just genocidalists. Kristen Renwick Monroe's work on rescuers, published in 1996 and 2004, and James Glass's 1997 study of genocidalists have noted the importance of cognitive classifications during the Holocaust. A 1997 study by Lina Haddad Kreidie and Kristen Monroe found similar categorization and dehumanization in communal violence in the Middle East. Historical literature on slaves within United States also points to the process of declassification and recategorization as critical before people feel justified in the mistreating and eventual killing of other human beings. This comparative work suggests that if we can declassify people, we also can reclassify them in an upward manner. The process, in other words, works both ways. Further work to determine how this recategorization process works may provide an answer to the implicit question underlying most analyses of genocide: How can it be stopped?
SEE ALSO Genocide; Philosophy
Adorno, Theodor, et al. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Row.
Altmeyer, Robert (1988). Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Right Wing Authoritarianism. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.
Browning, Christopher (1992). Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Aaron Asher/HarperCollins.
Bullock, Alan (1991). Hitler and Stalin. London: HarperCollins.
Gagnon A., and Bourhis R Y. (1996). "Discrimination in the Minimal Group Paradigm: Social Identity or Self-Interest." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 22, no. 12:1289301.
Glass, James (1997). Life Unworthy of Life: Racial Phobia and Mass Murder in Hitler's Germany. New York: Basic Books.
Hogg, Michael A. (1992). The Social Psychology of Group Cohesiveness: From Attraction to Social Identity. New York: New York University Press.
Hogg, Michael A., and Dominic Abrams (1988). Social Identifications: A Social Psychology of Intergroup Relationships and Group Processes. New York: Routledge.
Kreidie, Lina Haddad, and Kristen Monroe (1997). "The Perspectives of Islamic Fundamentalists and the Limits of Rational Choice Theory." Political Psychology 18(1):193.
Lipton, Robert Jay (1986). The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killings and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books.
Milgram, Stanley (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row.
Monroe, Kristen Renwick (1996). The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Monroe, Kristen Renwick (2004). The Hand of Compassion: Portraits of Moral Choice during the Holocaust. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Sherif, Muzafer (1973). Groups in Harmony and Tension: An Integration of Studies on Intergroup Relations. New York: Octagon Books.
Stryker, Sheldon (1987). "Identity Theory: Developments and Extensions." In Society and Identity: Psychosocial Perspectives, ed. Krysia Yardley and Terry Honess. New York: Wiley.
Tajfel, Henri (1981). "Human Groups and Social Categories." Studies in Social Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Tajfel, Henri and John C. Turner (1979). "An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict." In The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, ed. W. G. Austin and S. Worchel. Monterey, Calif.: Brooks/Cole.
Turner, John C., and Michael A. Hogg (1987). Rediscovering the Social Group: A Self-Categorization Theory. Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell.
Kristen Renwick Monroe