To give an explanation for some event or outcome typically involves providing an account, story, or series of reasons as to how and why the event or outcome came to be. Explaining something is often conceptualised as answering the question ‘why that and not something else?’ As such, many philosophers think that a good explanation should articular the causes by which the event or outcome in question came about. For example, to explain how a puddle of water and fragments of glass came to be found on the floor, I could provide that explanation that I accidentally knocked the glass off the table, causing it to smash. This explanation allows us to understand or make sense of the state of affairs (the smashed glass and water) by providing an account as to the causes that brought them about.

Often a given event or state of affairs is susceptible to many possible explanations. In this case, there are a number of criteria that are typically used to adjudicate better from worse explanations:

  • Explanatory scope: the more distinct and diverse phenomena that an explanation can account for, the better the explanation is.
  • Explanatory power: the more likely the explanation makes the phenomena, or the better it accounts for that phenomenon, the better the explanation is.
  • Plausibility: the more consistent the explanation is with previously accepted beliefs, the better it is.
  • Ad hocness: the more contrived an explanation is, the more it has to be fit specifically to the situation it is attempting to explain by introducing additional (i.e. previously unknown) postulates, the worse it is.

Further Reading

Scientific explanation: Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article describing various models of explanation in the sciences

Theories of explanation: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article summarising some different philosophical approaches to understanding explanation

Explanations, laws, and theories: Encyclopedia Britannica article discussing the place of explanation and theory in the sciences