A New Paradigm of Explanation?

"Modern Philosophy" was born in the early years of the 17th century, when Galileo and then Descartes rejected the teleological explanations of Aristotelian physics as empty, and replaced them with a mechanical paradigm. Despite Hume's warnings that mechanical explanation itself lacked the "intelligibility" craved by both Aristotelians and Moderns, the tradition consolidated by Boyle and Newton, and developed significantly by thinkers from Locke to Kant, continued to take mechanism as the scientific ideal well into the twentieth century. Only with the discovery of Quantum Mechanics did the fragility of the structure begin to appear, mechanical explanation giving way to an approach that stresses predictability by mathematical models rather than an expectation of ultimate "intelligibility". For more on all this, see my talk "Understanding the World, from Aristotle to Quantum Mechanics" and the Introduction to my edition of Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford World Classics, 2007).

Explanatory Paradigms and Philosophical Revolutions

As the birth of Modern Philosophy illustrates, the discovery and adoption of a new mode of explanation can have a revolutionary impact on the intellectual world, and on Philosophy in particular. Such events are rare but momentous: alongside the development of Mechanism and its later challenge by Quantum Mechanics, we can put Darwin's discovery of Evolution, which subtly merged mechanical and teleological modes of explaining biological adaptation. The impact of these three scientific developments on the shape of contemporary Philosophy is incalculable, and carries implications for Ethics and Philosophy of Religion as well as for pure "theoretical" Philosophy:

  • Mechanism: Emphasises the clockwork predictability of things, undermining Aristotelian teleological explanations in fields from Physics and Biology to Politics and Religion. It impacts on Ethics by suggesting that humans also are mechanistic, casting doubt on free will.
  • Evolution: Brings back teleology into Biology and Social Studies, but as consistent with mechanism, and fostering still further the view of humans as part of nature. Treats human behaviour as biologically adaptive rather than divinely inspired.
  • Quantum Mechanics: Undermines mechanism even in the physical world, fostering a changed understanding of explanation in terms of law-like behaviour rather than "intelligibility". Further tends to undermine the ancient assumption that the world is founded on anything akin to human (or divine) reason.

(It's interesting to note that the deeper implications of all three of these developments – e.g. mechanistic "chaos", the complexities of evolutionary ecology, and the interactions of multiple quantum particles – would be quite impossible to investigate in practice without the computer. But this is peripheral to the main point emphasised here, which concerns not the relative complexity of explanations, but rather their different species.)

The Algorithmic Revolution

This background hints at the computer's potentially revolutionary implications for philosophy: the modern digital computer is not only a fantastically powerful analytical tool, but also a platform for implementing and exploring a novel – algorithmic – paradigm of explanation. Some have recently argued (notably Stephen Wolfram in A New Kind of Science) that this new paradigm can transform scientific explanation in general, even within Physics. But one need not go that far to acknowledge the clear potential for algorithmic explanation in such fields as Psychology, Politics, Sociology, and Economics.

This approach is discussed more in the Models section of this website, notably in the pages on Generative Science and Artificial Life. But for present purposes it will do to emphasise this one fundamental point: that computers have given us a genuinely novel way of explaining phenomena, by showing how they arise from the complex interactions of numerous simple entities whose behaviour is algorithmically determined (e.g. in terms of digital state transitions rather than continuous physical forces). This by itself would be enough to confirm the development of the computer as having major philosophical significance.

Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei

Inaugurated the mechanical paradigm of explanation