For thousands of years, one major preoccupation of philosophers has been “giving an account” of our inner and outer worlds: providing a rigorous explanation of ourselves as human beings, of the world in which we find ourselves, and of anything else that’s part of that world, from the concrete (like tables, rabbits, or gallbladders) to the abstract (like nations, religions, or virtues) to the imaginary (like unicorns, square circles, or the square root of -1).
We can think of this project in two parts. First, taking an inventory of what exists:
- What are the basic components, of whatever we’re trying to study? Atoms? Strings? Thoughts and desires? Actions? Human individuals?
- What about abstract things? Can we say that a nation or a religion exists? Justice? Beauty? The number 3?
- What about non-existent or imaginary things? Unicorns? Sherlock Holmes?
Second, showing how these things fit together:
- Which things cause or explain other things?
- In what different ways can we have a cause or explanation? A chemist and a historian will each give very different kinds of explanations, but they’re both looking to explain the world.
- What features of the world are more important? What features matter less, or not at all?
- What makes for a good explanation—one that is full, complete, accurate, and informative?
These questions stand at the root of all the human sciences. They are at the foundation of each of the particular sciences—from mathematics to chemistry, from ecology to sociology, and beyond. And the way that we choose to answer these foundational questions can have profound implications for all of the more particular work that each science does, determining what other questions are even worth asking, and what kinds of answers are acceptable.
In this workshop, we’ll step back and survey this entire terrain. We’ll explore what it means to explain anything at all: We’ll look at radically different ways of answering the question “Why?” And radically different notions of “Because…”
- The canonical account of “six causes,” started by Aristotle, and completed by later Platonic philosophers.
- A few additional kinds of “cause” that were developed by Hindu and Buddhist philosophers in India.
- Where the scientific method fits, within these larger schemes of exploring and explaining the world itself, and our experience of the world.
- Some of the ways in which different kinds of explanation can be complementary, and not necessarily in competition with each other.
Through all of this, we’ll come away with a richer toolkit, with an ability to bring a variety of different approaches to bear on diverse topics and problems.