Explanations and the “Lust of the Mind”

So you drive a car? Then please tell me how the differential works. And if that’s too hard, can you tell me how the windshield wipers do their job? Explaining the former may be difficult, but surely it’s quite straightforward to explain how wipers wipe water off your windshield.

What is an explanation? How to people explain things? What is the underlying cognition of explanations?

Those are the questions that will be taken up here all of next week, during our next digital event on explanations. The event is based on the recognition that explanations are crucial to our cognitive lives because they inform our understanding of the world, structure our concepts, and guide our actions.

To provide some historical context for next week, let’s begin with philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who provided a glimpse at the phenomenology underlying explanations:

“There is a lust of the mind, that, by a perseverance of delight in the continual and indefatigable generation of knowledge, exceedeth the short vehemence of carnal pleasure.”

This appeal to “lust” has remained current at least till the end of the 20th century, when Alison Gopnik argued, in an article entitled Explanation as Orgasm, that:

“… the cognitive system is accompanied by a ‘theory drive’, a motivational system that impels us to interpret new evidence in terms of existing theories and change our theories in the light of new evidence. What we usually think of as explanation is the phenomenological state that accompanies the satisfaction of this drive. However, the relation between the phenomenology and the cognitive system is contingent, as in similar cases of sexual and visual phenomenology.”

It appears that one long-standing psychological aspect of explanations is the satisfaction that one can derive from finally understanding something, for example how a differential works—the famed “aha!” experience.

(And so here, finally, is the explanation, courtesy of Wikipedia: “A differential is a particular type of simple planetary gear train that has the property that the angular velocity of its carrier is the average of the angular velocities of its sun and annular gears. This is accomplished by packaging the gear train so it has a fixed carrier train ratio R = -1, which means the gears corresponding to the sun and annular gears are the same size.” So there. Or “aha!”)

The digital event coincides with the publication of a special issue of the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review dedicated to the processes of explanation. The issue was guest edited by Andrei Cimpian (New York University) and Frank Keil (Yale University). The articles in this issue will remain free to access by the public for a month. Here are the titles of the articles and their first authors:

Beginning on Monday, 18 September, we will be discussing some of those articles here in our next digital event. The following posts, listed in the order of their publication, will contribute to the event:

  • Andrei Cimpian and Frank Keil will provide an overview of the articles in the special issue of the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
  • Bob Rehder will examine the broader context and will comment on the progress made by the field.
  • Barbara Koslowski will pick up the issue of simplicity, and will examine whether simple explanations are always preferred.
  • Ulrike Hahn will consider our understanding of real-world explanations.
  • Sangeet Khemlani will conclude by explaining why it is so difficult to build an explanation machine, even for simple things such as windshield wipers.

I look forward to this event and I hope many readers will join us in our exploration of explanations next week.

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