Humans use explanations to try to explain an event or phenomenon. We were inundated with explanations on November 9, 2016, as people with or without prejudice sought to explain why the people of the United States of America elected Donald Trump. Much in the political realm, especially the conduct of the Democrat/communist Left seems inexplicable, we still try to make sense of events by formulating explanations.
Of course, explanations have a role in practically every part of life. A wife wants to explain why her husband has an unusual color of lipstick on his color and blonde hair, rather than her black hair, stuck on his jacket. Sports fans want to explain why a surprisingly weak and untalented team such as the Clemson Tigers could be ranked at the top of the AP poll.
Is it an explanation or a theory?
Some explanations, however, require little thought and are often automatically formulated and accepted. If you open the dishwasher and see dirty dishes, how would you explain the situation?
Explanation 1 – “Hmm. After I ran the dishwasher, a space alien teleported crusty food onto my dishes to aggravate me.
– or –
Explanation 2 – “Hmm. No one ran the dishwasher last night.”
If you chose the first explanation, some people might think that you were joking. See? We formulate explanations, but then we evaluate them to see which explanation is the most plausible.
For the remainder of this article, let’s consider another phenomenon:
After coming home at the end of the day, I open the door and flip the light switch. The light did not come on.
Testing an explanation
An explanation can be practically any sequence of words that explains something that happened. To qualify as a legitimate theory, however, an explanation must have several key attributes.
Consider the following:
The neighbor’s dog barked, so now my light doesn’t work.
Your audience will probably fail to see why a dog barking would affect your switch. The above explanation is not causally relevant, so it does not qualify as a theory.
How about this explanation:
My wife levitated to the ceiling and unscrewed the lightbulb. Now, my light doesn’t work.
Many people have never seen a person spontaneously or intentionally levitate, so your explanation will probably not win much support. A theory, therefore, must be consistent with physical law.
OK, suppose my audience has rejected my reasoning. In desperation, I explain the situation another way.
My cat dragged out my ladder, opened it, set it upright and then climbed it. After reaching the top of the ladder, my cat unscrewed the lightbulb, carried it down the ladder with him and then shipped it to Peru via FedEx. He then put the ladder away, covered his paw prints, scrubbed the ladder of his DNA and went about his day as though nothing had happened.
My final explanation might seem far-fetched, but can you prove beyond any doubt that it is false? Probably not. YouTube contains proof that cats can do amazing things. Still, we cannot test my explanation. In fact, no practical way exists to test it. A theory is testable in principle. Therefore, my explanation cannot be a theory. It is, in fact, as you supposed, hot air.
I could better serve myself and my audience by considering explanations that meet the criteria of a theory. Consider the following alternatives:
1 – The power company disconnected me for non-payment.
2 – A rat ate through the wires and therefore, the lamp no longer works.
3- The lightbulb burned out.
4 – The laws of physics suddenly changed in my house and electrons no longer flow through wires.
All four of these are causally relevant because we can easily find someone who had their power disconnected and find out if the disconnection caused their lights to stop working. Also, we can call the power company to find out (1) if they disconnected the power and (2) if disconnecting the power will disable my light.
Similarly, we can find real-life testimonials regarding (1) the fact that rats chew wires and (2) that lights whose wires have been chewed do not work. Humans can also identify with the experience of a burned-out lightbulb and we can easily set up a simple test to see if the laws of physics no longer apply in my house.
Arguments vs explanations
To recognize a statement as an argument, look for phenomena indicator words such as “so.” Consider the following:
My wife wants to be in a Broadway show,
so she left me.
You can also look at a statement to evaluate it for the obvious. Consider the following:
Explanation –> X happened because of Y (Where X is obvious)
Argument –> X happened because of Y (Where X is not so obvious and Q is obvious)
Share your thoughts about explanations and theories by sending an email to email@example.com.