To Explain or to Describe?

Last week I posted an article on the main approaches to thinking about the laws of nature. In short, we can demand that laws explain nature or we can be satisfied with them merely describing nature. But can we always tell the difference? Do we always know when we are just describing and when we are really explaining something?

Photo by Marlon Trottmann from Pexels

It turns out, we can fall into a kind of mental trap when we try to explain something. It doesn’t apply just to the topic of the laws of nature, far from it. Here is one interesting and thought-provoking example given by the authors of the book “Inside the Neolithic Mind”, David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce:

“Why did Near Eastern Neolithic people perform such elaborate and multistage burial practices? A commonly advanced, and indeed attractive, answer is that the rituals created social cohesion and thereby contributed to the society’s adaptation to its environment. This is known as a ‘functionalist’ explanation.”

So far so good, right? When I first read this, I thought – well, sure, makes sense. But, the authors continue:

“Take, for example, the statement:

– The function of periodic ritual pig slaughter in some Pacific societies is to regulate escalating pig populations.

Reformulated, this means: The function of x is to do what it does.”

We can come up with numerous examples of this sort of thinking from our daily lives. We think we are explaining something, our behavior perhaps, when in reality we are simply describing it. Why do I write this post? Writing allows me to express myself. Have I explained why I am writing? Or have I merely said that the function of writing is to express oneself? It feels like a trap! And that is how the authors call it:

“The statement is thus purely descriptive rather than explanatory… If we observe that people collectively participate in rituals, and we then go on to conclude that rituals – or myths, or kinship, or political structures – exist to hold society together, we are falling into the functionalist trap.”

This leaves me wondering – can we really explain our behavior at all, or can we just describe it? It feels we should be able to expain. Perhaps the way out of the trap is to focus on identifying our motivations driving the behavior, instead of trying to explain the behavior as a function of itself. It may sound easy, but give it a try. Next time you ask someone to explain something, watch out for the functionalist description trap.

keep exploring!

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