Aesthetics of Explanation

Most knowledge-making processes aim at explanation. How do some people (or nations) become so much wealthier, healthier, or happier than others? How does an organism’s genome “determine” its size, shape color, behavior, or risk of disease? Why is gravity so much weaker than the other fundamental forces? Why did my “check engine” light just turn on?

A moment’s reflection on common explanatory answers to these questions suggests that some kinds of explanation are more satisfying or aesthetically pleasing than others — and that humans vary in their preference over such kinds as both individuals and groups. Some people prefer to explain social inequality by reference to “intrinsic” properties of individuals (the poor are lazy or unintelligent, while the rich are hard-working or talented); others prefer “structural” explanations (the very structure of society is warped to continually advantage the already advantaged and keep the disadvantaged down). Simple, linear models of genetic influence (e.g., the central dogma of molecular biology, that information flows unidirectionally from DNA to RNA to proteins and thence to cellular and organismal phenotype) are still popular with lay readers (who yearn to learn about genes that “explain” language, intelligence, homosexuality, or obesity) despite the ongoing revision of such simple stories through RNA interference, post-transcriptional modification, various forms of epigenetic information, etc. The physics community made tremendous progress over the 20th century following an aesthetic preference for “elegant” explanation based on mathematical principles like symmetry and concision, only recently considering explanations that boil down to total contingency (the anthropic principle) or historical necessity (cosmological darwinism). It is clear that, in all of these cases, preferences cannot be justified by a naive appeal to “experiment” or nature.

In this project, we aim to explore the variation in structural and aesthetic properties of explanation; variation in preferences over these properties; and the social, cognitive, and historical origin of such variations.

In a world increasingly dominated by knowledge and knowledge-making processes, understanding the structure and aesthetics of satisfying explanation becomes increasingly urgent. Indeed, the obstacles to tackling many pressing social and environmental challenges may lie as much in judgment and aesthetics as in technical difficulty. The four main strands of this project will produce metaknowledge that begins to explain why some explanations are so appealing—and convincing.