In his caustic way, Byron writes:
[Coleridge is] explaining metaphysics to the nation
I wish he would explain his explanation.
I shall not attempt in this piece to explain metaphysics but I shall try to carry out Byron's wish and explain explanation. Offering explanations is an activity that goes on from the nursery to the advanced institute. What is it to explain something?
We might begin by noting that there are many different types of explanation. For example, someone might ask why there is a mark on the polished table, and be told: 'Lemon juice was spilled on it and I didn't notice at the time'. What has been offered here is a causal explanation. How does it work? For many of us, it works because we know from experience that this is the kind of thing that is likely to happen when lemon juice has been spilled on polish. And many explanations in everyday life are like this. We know that when A happens, B usually follows.
But a scientist such as a chemist would be able to fill in the gap between A and B, would know the theoretical system which means that when A happens, B will also happen; A and B are linked by the causal system which is chemistry. Moreover, the level of understanding will vary; a graduate in chemistry will understand much more about how lemon juice could cause a mark on polished wood than someone at the level of a school higher in chemistry, who will in turn understand more than someone who just knows from experience that such a conjunction will happen. In other words, explanations often presuppose systems of causal knowledge which we can know more or less about. A good explainer such as a good teacher will get the level right.
Suppose someone were to ask: Why do dogs pant? The answer is 'To lose heat'. An explanation of that kind is functional, and referring to function provides a second sort of explanation. While a functional explanation is certainly causal, it is also suggesting how the function of panting in dogs can contribute to the safe working of canine physiology. Here again, understanding can vary in depth depending on knowledge of the system which constitutes the healthy working of the canine body. Functional explanations are common not only in physiology but also in engineering.
An engineer might explain: 'The valve is there to regulate the flow of water'. This explanation is causal but it also indicates the function of the valve in the water system. But a full understanding requires us to understand a third point: the place of a water supply in human life. For most practical interests, only levels one and two are required but an assumption of human needs and purposes indicates a third kind of explanation.
The third type of explanation is called 'teleological', and it is common in the explanation of human behaviour. For example, if we ask 'Why did he press the button?' we might get the answer, 'In order to find out what would happen'. This works as an explanation because we are familiar with the framework of comprehensible human purposes, which include curiosity, sometimes rash. We understand the purpose because we might have had the same sort of desire ourselves.
There can be more complex versions of this. For example, we might ask why Mr A, who lives along the road, has spent all weekend working in his garden. This is a puzzle because he is known to dislike gardening. But we come to understand when a neighbour tells us that he is putting his house on the market and thinks it will sell better with a tidy garden.
This works as an explanation because we can now see the action in the sequence of events and actions which constitute Mr A's life. Moreover, there are explicit and implicit references to social purposes and values, such as selling houses, purposes which are aided by keeping gardens tidy. These are familiar to us and for that reason the relating of Mr A's actions to them helps our understanding. Further, because such purposes and values are ones which those who are in a certain social context can share, and with which they can have a sympathetic identification, understanding is thereby deepened.
Finally, the story of Mr A implies a variety of standpoints. There are hints of curious neighbours, perhaps disapproving of the untidy garden, of speculation about Mr A's motivation and so on. Our understanding involves a complex mixture of individual purposes, social norms, and contrasted viewpoints. In other words, the explanation invokes a complex system which we have implicitly at the back of our minds.
If we accept that explaining human behaviour requires knowledge of typical human purposes and norms, we can better understand the problem with which anthropologists or archaeologists are faced when they attempt to understand a society very different from their own. A simple description of the customs and behaviour does not provide interesting science. The scientists must also suggest the meaning of this behaviour in a way of life, or at least tell a likely story about it.
In a similar way, a psychotherapist must understand the meaning of the behaviour of a client. This is the context in which the idea of narrative has an important explanatory role. An understanding of meaning requires close attention to the client/patient's unfolding story. Indeed, in some branches of medicine such as general practice or psychiatry, narrative understanding may even, sometimes, bring about an improvement. This might happen if the GP or psychiatrist is able to suggest that the patient's unfolding story is open to another and less destructive meaning. To achieve this kind of understanding, the doctor must search for meaning in the patient's story rather than make a vain attempt to share their feelings. Even just listening to their story without moralising can help. This is true of all of us in our relationships with friends.
I suggested above that scientists explain the world by discovering patterns/theories which offer complex versions of the causality which underlies the conjunction of events. Patterns, as it were, structure space. An example is the double-helix which is the spatial pattern of the DNA molecule. Sometimes there are patterns of behaviour comparable to the causal interaction of events in the natural world. For example, some psychologists claim that there is a typical pattern of behaviour which follows a bereavement.
But this is quite unlike the way a given individual might explain what went wrong in his/her life. Someone would more typically explain what went wrong in their life by telling a story. A story, a narrative, does not constitute a pattern but rather a sequence, and a sequence structures time. Explaining by reference to the sequence or story of a life is another way of creating understanding.
Good literature, among its many functions, can explore the sequences which constitute our lives. It can develop insights into individual purposes, social norms and the complexity of situations. In presenting us with narrative explanations of the colliding sequences which constitute the lives of their characters, novelists can leave us with two points of view which are each plausible despite being contradictory. They are: 'An explanation of bad behaviour is not the same as an excuse' and: 'To understand (or explain) all is to forgive all'.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow