Explanation is not all it seems. Explanations owe more to matters of language than fact. They echo the voice of authority, partly borrowed from the facts, but crucially sponsored by the credibility of who says what. For most purposes they serve as rarefied beliefs – vouching for the way things ‘must be’. At the cutting edge they take the form of specialised communications between like-minded thinkers claiming to speak for the truth – assuring us that facts dispel uncertainties, and truth is furthered by the elimination of contradiction. Contradiction showcases opposing statements of fact. Either way, the facts are neither disposed to tell us anything, nor explain themselves. In most cases the facts have been selected to suit the explanation, though their proponents gain rhetorical advantage in pretending it is the other way round. Politicians are particularly adept at this – the fuzziness of language being the politician’s weapon of choice and first line of defence.
Scientific explanation tackles the problem by putting its explanations on trial – as if the facts will decide. Scientists acknowledge known unknowns, but it is the unknown unknowns that weaken their conclusions, which harbour a persisting hiatus that outstrips all progress in working towards an ultimate truth. The strange thing about scientific explanation is that it can seem right, because it works, yet still be wrong – being ‘right’ for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, for scientists, it is the explanation that counts, and they soldier on without knowing whether their findings will ever have a practical application. In the meantime the whole of explanation comes down to tentative theories which remain fallible because of the ever vacant space for the unknown. But the greater fallacy is due to our precepts of what we need and don’t need to know, given the fact of what we take to know already – prescribing that whereof we cannot know, thereof we must ignore.