An explanation is a set of statements constructed to describe a set of facts which clarifies the causes, context, and consequences of those facts.
This description may establish rules or laws, and may clarify the existing ones in relation to any objects, or phenomena examined. The components of an explanation can be implicit, and be interwoven with one another.
An explanation is often underpinned by an understanding that is represented by different media such as music, text, and graphics. Thus, an explanation is subjected to interpretation, and discussion.
In scientific research, explanation is one of the purposes of research, e.g., exploration and description. Explanation is a way to uncover new knowledge, and to report relationships among different aspects of studied phenomena.
Explanations and arguments
While arguments attempt to show that something is, will be, or should be the case, explanations try to show why or how something is or will be. If Fred and Joe address the issue of whether or not Fred's cat has fleas, Joe may state: "Fred, your cat has fleas. Observe the cat is scratching right now." Joe has made an argument that the cat has fleas. However, if Fred and Joe agree on the fact that the cat has fleas, they may further question why this is so and put forth an explanation: "The reason the cat has fleas is that the weather has been damp." The difference is that the attempt is not to settle whether or not some claim is true, it is to show why it is true.
In this sense, arguments aim to contribute knowledge, whereas explanations aim to contribute understanding.
Arguments and explanations largely resemble each other in rhetorical use. This is the cause of much difficulty in thinking critically about claims. There are several reasons for this difficulty.
- People often are not not themselves clear on whether they are arguing for or explaining something.
- The same types of words and phrases are used in presenting explanations and arguments.
- The terms 'explain' or 'explanation,' et cetera are frequently used in arguments.
- Explanations are often used within arguments and presented so as to serve as arguments.
Explanations and justification
Justification is the reason why someone properly holds a belief, the explanation as to why the belief is a true one, or an account of how one knows what one knows. In much the same way arguments and explanations may be confused with each other, so too may explanations and justifications. Statements which are justifications of some action take the form of arguments. For example attempts to justify a theft usually explain the motives (e.g., to feed a starving family).
It is important to be aware when an explanation is not a justification. A criminal profiler may offer an explanation of a suspect's behavior (e.g.; the person lost their job, the person got evicted, etc.). Such statements may help us understand why the person committed the crime, however an uncritical listener may believe the speaker is trying to gain sympathy for the person and his or her actions. It does not follow that a person proposing an explanation has any sympathy for the views or actions being explained. This is an important distinction because we need to be able to understand and explain terrible events and behavior in attempting to discourage it.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Scientific Explanation
- Explanation in several languages and meanings