What do we mean by "explanation"?

This is a book about explanation. The origins of the book lie in the all too frequent observation that, often, our way of thinking does not match the world.  Such mismatches give rise to ambiguity and uncertainty. The ambiguity, in turn, acts as both a constraint on possible actions (including the action of reliable prediction) and the desire to "explain" what is going on. Explanation is the name for the process we use to answer the questions raised by observed ambiguities.  Explanation is also the name for the product of such processes.  This process/product divergence is merely a hint of the many conflicting approaches to be found in the contemporary understanding of explanation.  This book is the first in decades to attempt to bring these conflicting approaches together and to offer a compelling narrative to explore how those conflicts can converge.

Such convergence is important because explanation is important. Often we work with an idiosyncratic conception of explanation-a conception that may not match our neighbors'.  In this dissonance lies both potential gain and potential trauma. The lack of an explanation often leads to either creative inquiry or to troubling confrontations between holders of differing beliefs.  Such occurrences may be found even when some believe that an explanation has been forthcoming - an "explanation" which others find "explains nothing."

Just as the scientist constructs explanations to make sense of observed phenomena, the practitioner creates explanations to make sense of the world around him/her. Furthermore, just as the scientist uses accepted explanations to make the world respond as he/she wants it to, the practitioner relies on explanation to navigate the complicated social, financial, and political world she inhabits. In each case, explanations allow humans to successfully manipulate the world. Put another way, explanations offer affordances (Gibson, 1977 etc.).  Some of these may be affordances for action, others are affordances for prediction.