How to Define Levels of Explanation and Evaluate their Indispensability (Forthcoming)


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Abstract: Some explanations in social science, psychology and biology belong to a higher level than other explanations. And higher explanations possess the virtue of abstracting away from the details of lower explanations, many philosophers argue. As a result, these higher explanations are irreplaceable. And this suggests that there are genuine higher laws or patterns involving social, psychological and biological states. I show that this 'abstractness argument' is really an argument schema, not a single argument. This is because the argument uses the 'is lower than' relation, and this relation admits of different readings. I then suggest four rigorous definitions of the 'is lower than' relation, and show that the abstractness argument's prospects are much brighter for some of these definitions than for others. To show this, I evaluate the so-called 'disjunctive threat' to the abstractness argument.

Multi-Level Selection and the Explanatory Role of Mathematical Decompositions (2016)

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 67, 1025-55

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Abstract: Do multi-level selection explanations of the evolution of social traits deepen the understanding provided by single-level explanations? Central to multi-level explanations is a mathematical theorem, the multi-level Price decomposition. I build a framework through which to understand the explanatory role of such non-empirical decompositions in scientific practice. Applying this general framework to the present case places two tasks on the agenda. The first task is to distinguish the various ways by which one might suppress within-collective variation in fitness, or indeed between-collective variation in fitness. I distinguish five such ways: increasing retaliatory capacity; homogenising assortment; collapsing either fitness structure or character distribution to a mean value; and boosting fitness uniformly within collectives. I then evaluate the biological interest of each of these hypothetical interventions. The second task is to discover whether one of the right-hand terms of the Price decomposition measures the effect of any of these interventions. On this basis I argue that the multi-level Price decomposition has explanatory value primarily when the sharing-out of collective resources is 'subtractable'. Thus its value is more circumscribed than its champions Sober and Wilson (1998) suppose.

The Explanatory Virtue of Abstracting Away from Idiosyncratic and Messy Detail (2016)

Philosophical Studies 173: 1429-1449

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Abstract: Some explanations are relatively abstract: they abstract away from the idiosyncratic or messy details of the case in hand. The received wisdom in philosophy is that this is a virtue for any explanation to possess. I argue that the apparent consensus on this point is illusory. When philosophers make this claim, they differ on which of four alternative varieties of abstractness they have in mind. What's more, for each variety of abstractness there are several alternative reasons to think that the variety of abstractness in question is a virtue. I identify the most promising reasons, and dismiss some others. The paper concludes by relating this discussion to the idea that explanations in biology, psychology and social science cannot be replaced by relatively micro explanations without loss of understanding.

Preferences and Positivist Methodology in Economics (2016)

Philosophy of Science 83: 192-212

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Abstract: I distinguish several doctrines that economic methodologists have found attractive, all of which have a positivist flavour. One of these is the doctrine that preference assignments in economics are just shorthand descriptions of agents' choice behaviour. Although most of these doctrines are problematic, the latter doctrine about preference assignments is a respectable one, I argue. It doesn't entail any of the problematic doctrines, and indeed it is warranted independently of them.

Neuroeconomics and Confirmation Theory (2014)

Philosophy of Science 81: 195-215

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Abstract: Neuroeconomics is a research programme founded on the thesis that cognitive and neurobiological data constitute evidence for answering economic questions. I employ confirmation theory in order to reject arguments both for and against neuroeconomics. I also emphasize that some arguments for neuroeconomics will not convince the skeptics because these arguments make a contentious assumption: economics aims for predictions and deep explanations of choices in general. I then argue for neuroeconomics by appealing to a much more restrictive (and thereby skeptic-friendly) characterization of the aims of economics.