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Foundations of Philosophy


Description to Explanation

Now the principal technique in effecting the transition from description to explanation is measurement.1

Preliminary Exercises

(1) In the context of geometry, (a) Describe a point. (b) Describe a line. (c) Describe a circle.

(2) In the context of geometry, (a) Define a point. (b) Define a line. (c) Define a circle.

(3) John thinks that the tea is too hot; Mike thinks the same tea is too cold. Is the tea really hot or cold?

(4) To person of sound common sense the table is brown, solid, smooth and stable. As a scientist Eddington declared that the same table is composed mainly of empty space, with a few tiny particles, moving at great speed; that it has no color and is extremely uneven. Which is the real table?

(5) John says, "The sun rises in the East and sets in the West." Mike says, "The sun is not moving." Is there a contradiction between these two statements? [94]

We identified three stages of meaning in our opening chapter, common sense, theory and interiority, without giving a precise analysis of common sense and theory. It is now time to focus on this distinction which hinges on two diverse kinds of insights, namely, those of description and those of explanation.2 We continue our program of self-appropriation in searching for a precise meaning to these commonly used terms. We have already identified the basic act of understanding and its five characteristics; now we expand our familiarity with understanding in appropriating two different spheres of knowing, describing and explaining. We will start with a history of attempts to get this distinction right; most of them failed. Through examples drawn from our own experience we will establish that there are two kinds of insights: those that relate things to us and those that relate things to one another. We will need to define these clearly and precisely as they have a universal relevance. This proves to be very fruitful and many apparent contradictions, confusions and paradoxes disappear in the light of this distinction.

1. Historical Background

Plato was very perturbed by the fact that a wind, which is judged chilly by one person, can at the same time be judged warm by another (Theaetetus 152ff). The same problem arises with things, which are large to some and small to others, heavy to some and light to others, sour to some and sweet to others. Plato feared that this would prove that Protagoras was right in saying, 'Man is the measure of all things alike of the being of things that are and of the non-being of things that are not.' Is knowledge relative to the perceiver? To admit that would be to surrender to the Sophists.3 Plato was deeply convinced that there is knowledge which is not relative to the observer. But how was he to cope with the above examples? Plato seems to have given his answer in the analogy of the divided line and of the cave in the Republic.

The divided line says that there are two kinds of knowledge: sense knowledge (doxa) subdivided into opinion and belief, and intellectual knowledge (episteme) subdivided into knowledge of the Forms and of the mathematicals. Intellectual knowledge is real knowledge of things that do not change, of what is, and is infallible. Sense knowledge is of the changing and so is not really knowledge. The same message is driven home in the metaphor of the cave. [95] Sense knowledge is the kind of knowledge that the prisoners have of the shadows on the wall and the statues casting the shadows. The prisoners have intellectual knowledge when they come to the entrance to the cave and see individual real things and the sun as the source of light.

Plato cannot consider knowledge, which is relative to an observer and changes, to be true knowledge. Knowledge of warmth, sweetness, weight, size, as in the above examples, would be classified as sense knowledge and distrusted by him as knowledge of shadows of imitations. In contrast, by way of intellectual knowledge we know the Forms that are permanent and unchanging. He seems to have surrendered the field of sense knowledge to the Sophists in order to hold on to real knowledge of the permanent realities in intellectual knowledge.

Galileo, Descartes and Newton were confronted with much the same problem in their efforts to understand the world in the language of science and mathematics. There were some aspects of nature that could be measured and subsumed under laws but there were also aspects which seemed to depend on the perceiver and which could not be measured. It was thought that some aspects of reality resemble the ideas that we have of them, and that the qualities we perceive belong to the object in reality as well as to the perceiver. For other aspects of reality there was thought to be no resemblance between what is in reality and what is in the perceiver; the real thing only has the power to produce these sensations in us. John Locke formulated this distinction explicitly in terms of primary and secondary qualities.4

Primary qualities are those qualities of a body which really belong to the body and cause our ideas of that body and our ideas really resemble that body. There are five primary qualities, extension (size), figure (shape), motion (or rest), number and solidity. These qualities are inseparable from the matter and are found in every part of it. If you subdivide a quantity of gold, the primary qualities will still belong to each and every one of the smallest parts. Significantly, the primary qualities can easily be [96] measured and so it was claimed that they were 'objective' and belonged to science. It can also be noted that primary qualities are usually perceived by more than one sense.

Secondary qualities are perceived qualities like color, taste, smell, sound, warmth or cold, etc. They are causes of our perception of them but the ideas in our mind do not resemble the qualities of the bodies in reality. Secondary qualities are not true qualities of matter but merely powers in the objects to produce sensory effects in us. Secondary qualities can be influenced by the conditions of the sense organs, health or sickness of the perceiver, conditions of lighting, etc. If you have three bowls of water, one hot, one medium, and one cold, and you put one hand in the hot and one in the cold; if after a few moments you plunge both hands into the medium, it will feel both hot and cold at the same time. Hence, heat cannot be an intrinsic quality of things because our perception of it varies so much. It would be the same with different perceptions of the color of a pond, which depend on conditions of lighting and the angle of perception. It is difficult to measure secondary qualities, as they are often the object of one sense only. Hence, Locke concluded, these secondary qualities are not real and do not belong to bodies and are to be excluded from science. For a slightly different reason then Plato, Locke claimed that we cannot have reliable knowledge of such qualities as sweetness, warmth, feel, etc.

Locke's distinction does not seem to hit the mark. Primary qualities are also subject to great variations depending on the view of the perceiver; for example, bodies which are close will seem to be large and those far away seem to be small. Secondary qualities can often in fact be measured (e.g. heat by a thermometer) and do play a part in science. There are difficulties to this distinction that he did not face. But the main problem lies not so much in the definitions but in how he asked the question: can you compare what is in reality with what is in your mind? How can you say that they are the same or different?

This kind of thinking lasted in the scientific community up to the beginning of the 20th century, when Eddington presented his dilemma of the two tables.5 By that time science had shown that atoms were mostly empty space and that the particles were [97] constantly moving. The table of the scientist is mostly empty space, with a few particles whizzing around at enormous speeds and it has no color. But the table of common sense is very solid, is certainly not moving and is very clearly brown. Which is the real table? How do you resolve the apparent contradiction? Following the tradition inherited from Locke and others, Eddington had to hold that the scientific table was real and that the table of common sense was merely an illusion. We are not so sure.

This confusion throughout history continues to the present day. Our solution is to investigate the mental operations we perform when we are describing and then the mental operations we perform when we are explaining. If we keep closely in touch with real examples we will be able to grasp how our perspective shifts when we move from describing to explaining. We discover that both are valid forms of knowing with their own advantages and disadvantages.

2. Description

We do not seem to have much difficulty in describing things. When asked to describe a point, students will usually suggest words like, a dot, a mark, a spot, a small stain, a little dot, etc. A line will usually be described in terms of a path, a long mark, a series of dots very close together, an infinite series of dots, etc. A circle can be described as a round ball or an even wheel or a regular curve. Even more easily we can describe trees, tables, landscapes, objects. Clearly, we have little difficulty describing, but what exactly are we doing when we are describing?

Our definition of the activity of describing is that we are 'relating things to ourselves.' We are assuming that we are the center and that things are to be related to us. We are saying how it seems to us, how it appears from our perspective. We do this via the senses and so descriptive knowledge is dominated by how we see things, hear them, feel, taste, and smell them. To describe a table is to say what it looks like to us, how it feels, smells, seems to us. To describe a point or a line will be to say what it looks like to us; what image can best be used to describe it. To describe the heavenly bodies is to say how [98] they seem to be moving from our point of view assuming that they are moving relative to us.

The most obvious thing about description is that it is relative to us. The point of reference is presumed to be ourselves. Terms like right/left, up/down, there/here, now/later, all presume ourselves as the term of reference. But they may be different for another observer because he is relating things to his own position. So, descriptions will relate to the point of reference of the observer. Consequently, ordinary descriptive knowledge will be ambiguous and approximate. 'I have a terrible fever,' approximately describes your problem but doctors will usually treat this with a little skepticism and check with a thermometer. 'There was a huge crowd at the demonstration;' well, that assessment may depend on whether you are for the cause or against it. It is rarely that a chemistry book tells you to add some concentrated acid, simmer for a while, mix a pinch of this with a little of that. When we use works like large, heavy, warm, many, bright, far, fast, soon, sweet, easy, we are usually using descriptive terminology. Even though we may have a fair idea of what we mean by those terms, there is no guarantee that another person will have exactly the same idea.

Descriptive knowledge forms the bulk of the common sense of mankind. Common sense is a specialization of intelligence relating to the practical, the particular, and the short-term. It is genuine knowledge but it is largely descriptive. It is very practical and eschews theoretical considerations. It is short-term and prefers immediate results to the long-term expectations of a better course of action. Common sense is related to the particular place and time and the fund of conventional wisdom that has been built up by the community as to how things are done, how one is to behave, dress, relax, play, etc. Because it is relative to time and place, there are many different brands of common sense.

Description is where all our knowledge begins. The child is incurably egocentric and has to relate everything to itself. Even when intelligence has emerged, the sensible still predominates. Traditional cultures like the early Greeks were predominantly descriptive; all cultures must begin at that level. Hence confusion over meaning - magic and religion, art and science, poetry and [99] philosophy - was inevitable at that stage. Most of the empirical sciences begin by describing the materials that they study.

So far we have emphasized the limitations and relativity of descriptive knowing; now we must insist that describing does involve acts of understanding and that descriptions can be either correct or incorrect. Insights are involved because you are expressing yourself in words. Seeing red is an experience; animals can see red; but distinguishing and naming red, blue, purple, etc. is a work of intelligence and has to be learned. To describe the movements of the heavenly bodies involves recognizing the meaning of words, being able to distinguish different shapes and sizes and colors, being able to discern and to compare movements. To describe involves being able to classify things according to their sensible similarities and dissimilarities; discerning which qualities are significant and which are not. Data is given in experience; facts are judgments passed through correct understanding.

Descriptions, despite their limitations, can be labeled correct or incorrect. If you are observing the movements of the heavenly bodies and one person says the stars are not moving, another says they are moving at random, and another that they are moving from East to West, then, there is a problem. There comes a point when descriptions have to agree. If serious discrepancies occur then we have to look for the source of misunderstanding: are we looking at the same thing; what do we mean by movement; do we include movements which can only be detected after hours of observation, etc. Discrepancies are usually resolved when we look again, more carefully, more intelligently, more systematically. If two witnesses in court give quite different accounts of one event, there comes a point when we can correctly conclude that one of them must be lying.

But as well as ordinary description there is also scientific description, i.e. description as it prepares the way for explanation; description as it is controlled and guided by theoretical intelligence. Here description can become very sophisticated and refined. Looking at the heavenly bodies with the naked eye means that your observations are going to be very approximate and of little value. But as a person advances in the science of astronomy, refines his [100] techniques of measuring, begins to use sophisticated telescopes, and directs his attention by way of theory to search for something specific, then he is using scientific description. It is still description because he is still reporting what he sees and how it appears to him, but it is no longer vague and approximate.

The sciences begin with descriptions, how things relate to us, in order to move on to explanation. Sciences begin with classifications based on sensible similarities in order to go on to defining things according to their intelligible relations. Botany will start with descriptions of plants, their color, size, shape, etc. in order to go on to define the species in terms of the functions of different systems in relation to the whole; the relation of this species to other species in an evolutionary model.

Turning back to Plato for a moment, we can sympathize with him in the problem of different perceptions of warmth, sweetness, size, distance, etc. At the level of ordinary descriptive knowledge there is no final resolution to this ambiguity and disagreement. Because descriptive knowledge is relative to the perceiver, the element of relativity cannot be overcome. Plato solved his problem by discarding this kind of knowledge as intrinsically flawed and not real knowledge. We would incline to the opinion that it is true knowledge even though it is only descriptive. To escape from the relativity of descriptive knowing we have to shift our perspective, prescind from the observer and jump to explanation. Plato asked the question, is the wind really cold? is the food really sweet? His answer was to escape into a noetic heaven where pure coldness, sweetness, oneness, being, etc. existed perfectly and permanently. We can ask the same question but find the answer in a slightly different direction. We accept the limitations of descriptive knowledge but seek a way to escape the relativity of this kind of knowing and get something which is more accurate, objective and permanent.

3. Explanation

To explain things is 'to relate things to one another,' to prescind from the observer's point of view to the extent that that is possible. [101] This usually involves a shift to a technical language, definition and often measurement. It is a shift to a theoretical point of view, which will eventually return to the concrete by way of verification. It enables tremendous precision to be reached in measurement and calculation, as well as in the use of technical terms and definition. There seem to be two principal ways to move into an explanatory framework, by way of measurement or by way of definition; we will consider them in turn. Our concern is still the identification of different kinds of insight as they actually occur in our own thinking and knowing.

3.1 Measurement

The technique of explanatory measurement was discovered by ancient civilizations when descriptive categories proved to be inadequate. You could hardly build the pyramids on the basis of 'big stones', 'long ropes', 'slanting', etc. Nor was it easy to divide out equal plots of land as a reward for the soldiers on the basis of 'large', 'small', 'pretty large', etc. Nor could you anticipate much progress in astronomy if you were confined to descriptive language such as ‘over there’, 'up there', 'far away', etc.

The basic breakthrough was to adopt a standard length then line up the object and see how many times the standard measure measures it off. This is one basic example of relating things to one another. Instead of relating things to individual perception of size, you have a standard measure on which everybody is agreed. If you wish to compare two distances, since lining them up might be difficult, measure each of them in terms of the standard and then compare the measurements. Simple arithmetic can, then, be used to divide a field into five equal sections, to determine how many blocks of what size would be needed for a pyramid of a determinate size, to discover how long it would take to complete various journeys. Geometry can also be utilized in the calculation of areas of fields of different shapes, and extended to capacities and volumes of containers.

Early standards were rather loosely defined and usually based on human dimensions; the cubit was a measure from the elbow to the tip of the index finger, about 18 inches; a span was the span of the [102] hand, about 8 inches; a foot was the length of a foot, approximately 12 inches; a hand was the width of the palm, about three inches. Small variations did not matter much in those days but in more modern times it became necessary to define standards more accurately. So we have the preservation of the standards of the yard and the meter, which are generally accepted, recognized and used as the basis for all calculations of length and distance.

The same technique can be used for weight. Adopting a standard of reference by which to measure quantities of vegetables, or corn, by weight was fundamental for the progress of trade and business; the difficulty was to ensure that everybody recognized the standard and adhered to it. In biblical and Greek times, people were aware of the danger of false weights which could favor the trader. The Greeks did not develop this technique of measurement, and were happier in the field of pure geometry and proportions. It was the Scientific Revolution that was to exploit the possibilities of explanatory measurement to the full.

There is an arbitrary cultural element involved in the choice of the particular standard. Each early culture developed its own rudimentary weights and measures. As they came in contact with other civilizations they had to agree on standards if there was to be any trade and exchange between them. Then you can have agreement and communication across cultures and over time which will not be ambiguous or open to misinterpretation. In our day we are left with yards and meters, miles and kilometers, pounds and kilos, which are a result of historical struggles and choices. Either will do, as long as the same standard is preserved, recognized, used and respected by everybody.

One further advantage of explanatory measuring is to be seen in the precision that is possible in calculations. Once you have a standard it can be subdivided into as many smaller units as you wish. Similarly, it can be extended by multiplication to cover huge distances as far as the circumference of the earth. With fractions and decimals and eventually calculus you can deal with infinitely small areas and lengths. Now it is no longer a case of big, small, pretty large, but one and a half inches, three miles, a half kilo, a half gram. Distance and weight can be specified to any degree of accuracy that [103] you wish. Provided that everybody is following the same standard, there is no possibility of misinterpretation or ambiguity.

Once you have the basic standards of distance, weight, time and angles then you can extend the technique by the use of scales. How do you measure warmth? Is there a way of shifting to an explanatory framework? How can you relate things to one another here? You discover that metals expand in a regular manner with an increase in heat. You find a metal like mercury, which is easy to handle, and note the way it expands and contracts depending on heating or cooling. The trick now is to fix the scale at the top and the bottom. What can we take as a standard or fixed point? Let us just assume that the freezing point of water is zero and the boiling point of water is the other fixed point on the scale. Divide the intervening degrees of heat into a hundred equal parts. Now you have the centigrade thermometer; you are relating systematically the expansion of the volume of mercury, with the increase or decrease in heat, and the freezing point and boiling point of water are giving you your limits. You are setting up a system of relating things to one another. Now it is possible to specify in degrees the exact temperature of a patient; we have shifted from heat as felt to temperature. The more accurate the instrument the more accurate can the measurements of temperature become. We have shifted from describing how warm I feel, to an explanatory concept of temperature. We have managed to prescind from the observer and relate things to one another. Precision, accuracy and communication are now possible.

The same happens in so many other fields where instruments are constructed to relate different factors and to measure the differential by means of a scale. A barometer measures air pressure in inches. Noise can be measured in decibels. Water density, viscosity, torque, wavelength, intensity of light, electricity, etc. can be measured using similar kinds of techniques. Part of the development of modern science is the development of the sophistication of techniques of measurement. It is the advance of applied technology, which makes even more accurate systems of relating things to one another possible. We are not interested in the details of this progress but in the simple principle that these measurements are explanatory and [104] hinge on an insight that relates things to one another and prescinds from the point of view of the observer.

Measurement is a technique of marking off, but it is guided by concepts and definitions. The invariance of standards in scientific work resides not in the physical bars or weights but in the invariance of laws and concepts. All understanding involves some pivoting between the abstract and the concrete; this becomes explicit in the field of explanation. Standards of length, temperature, mass, specific gravity, the laws of motion, point, line and circle are abstract concepts. Ideas emerge from images; concepts are formulated ideas; in moving to an explanatory treatment of heat we move from feeling heat to a concept of temperature; you cannot feel temperature, nor do you have an image of temperature. We use the standards in measuring and understanding the concrete reality of particular cases.

It may be surprising to realize that a yard or a meter is a concept. But just as a circle is a concept to which concrete actual circles approximate, so a yard is a concept to which various measures approximate. There can be no perfect coincidence between the concrete and the abstract. The bar of metal preserved at the same temperature and pressure is the closest the concrete can come to the abstract concept of meter. But if you ask where is the precise end of the bar, you realize there is a problem because the end of the bar is uneven; even if it seems to be even to the naked eye, a microscope reveals that concrete is always uneven. We will explore this more deeply when we deal with classical method.

3.2 Definition

When one moves from physics and chemistry to the biological sciences and especially when one comes to the human sciences, measurement loses its primacy. But that does not mean that these higher sciences cannot be explanatory. The way to explanation in the higher sciences is largely the way of explanatory definition, where the terms define the relations and the relations define the terms. Measurement, standards, counting are not entirely replaced but yield in importance to the power of explanatory definition. Let [105] us consider nominal definition, descriptive definition, explanatory definition and implicit definition.

Nominal definition tells us of the correct use of names. It is a genuine and important kind of insight as is illustrated clearly in the dramatic example of Helen Keller. Her insight was simply into the relation of the letters w a t e r with the sensible feeling of water flowing over her hand. But it was a breakthrough. Most of our early learning is of the correct use of words. Children are continually being corrected when they use the wrong word. Nominal definition gives us an insight into the correct use of words, but it does not give us an insight into the objects referred to. This can be a trap; because we have a word to refer to the object we often presume that we know what we are talking about. Nonetheless, nominal definition it is a first step in the learning process and prepares the way for future progress.

In descriptive definition we define things in terms of their relations to us. We classify things in terms of sensible similarities. They are genuine insights but somewhat limited. Descriptive definitions prepare the way for explanatory. Gradually classifications of things in terms of sensible similarity give way to classifications based on their relations to one another. A botany, which divided trees into those of the same size and color, would not be very satisfactory. The principle of sensible similarity has to give way to the principle of relating things together in an explanatory framework of definitions and concepts and principles.

Explanatory definition goes beyond nominal definition in that it includes knowledge of the object, as well as knowledge of the correct use of terms. Explanatory definition goes beyond descriptive definition, because it relates things to one another, rather than relating them to oneself. We have noted how the descriptions of the point, line and circle are usually given in terms of visual images, like dot, path, even round figure. How would we define the same things in an explanatory definition?

Usually students with a little help will reach a definition of a point as something like 'position without magnitude'. It does not have size, magnitude, physical dimensions; it does have position, it is a place, a point on a map or a diagram. Eventually, they will come [106] up with a definition of a line as a distance between two points, which has length but no breadth. But a difficulty arises when you ask, Can you see a point or a line? If a point has no magnitude then it cannot be seen; if a line has only length then similarly you should not be able to see it. But you cannot do geometry without drawings of lines and points on the board in chalk. Lines and points as defined are concepts. There is an intelligibility, a meaning, that is grasped in insight and formulated in the definition yielding a concept. Images are products of imagination and concepts are products of intelligence.

The definition of the circle presupposed the definition of the point and the line, but grasps the necessary relation that all the radii be equal and that one point be fixed and the other rotates. So you eventually reach the definition as 'the locus of a point moving equidistant from a fixed point on the same plane'. But this is a definition not a description. It is relating things to one another in a necessary relation. It is an insight into the necessity of the equality of the radii, of the fixed and moving point and of the same plane. The problem recurs when you ask, Can you see a circle? A circle as defined is a concept, a product of insight and conception; if you cannot see a point or a line, then, similarly you cannot see a circle. Understanding grasps the forms in the images; we use the images to get the insights. But explanatory definitions go beyond the images to necessary relations between the terms. Images play a different role in explanation than they do in description, as we shall see.

There is a logical conundrum, which is often brought up at this point. To define one word you need a whole series of words to express the definition. But logically it would seem that for clarity you would then need to define individually each of these words. Then the words of those definitions would need to be defined, and so on. Our answer to this is that insight comes first, then expression and conception. A single insight can settle the meaning of a cluster or circle of terms and relations. In the example of the circle, there is a basic insight incorporating a cluster of terms and relations, such that the terms fix the relations and the relations fix the terms and the insight fixes both. The insight into the definition of the circle fixes the relation between points and distances and lines in a necessary [107] way; at the same time, that process also helps define the meaning of point, line and distance. All the concepts are needed for the insight.

Hence, we can get some idea of the importance of system for explanatory definition. It is often not possible to define one element explanatorily in isolation from everything else, as Socrates found to his cost. When you move into the context of explanatory definition, you usually move into a system of terms and relations such that the relations fix the terms and the terms fix the relations. The periodic table in chemistry is a typical process of setting up such a system of terms and relations; arrange the known elements according to their atomic weight; notice that they seem to fall into a pattern; each element is defined in relation to the previous one, the next one and its place in the pattern; it becomes so systematic that you could predict unknown elements even though they had not yet been discovered.

Technical terminology is part of the process of moving from description to explanation. In description terms are usually vague non-technical and ex pressed in visual images or image language. ‘Form’ and ‘matter’ were words with a commonsense meaning in the time of Aristotle and he sometimes used them in that way. But he also assigned a technical meaning to those words and then they became part of his explanatory system. Sometimes new words have to be invented for the new system but more commonly ordinary words are used and assigned a technical meaning within a context of definitions and postulates. ‘Person’ and ‘nature’ were words, which were assigned a special meaning in the history of theology by way of the doctrinal definitions of the creeds. Explanation needs this shift to technical meaning because the definition does assign a precise explanatory meaning to that use of the word.

Implicit definition is a special kind of explanatory definition; it is explanatory definition without nominal definition. It is characterized by extreme generality. Nominal definition ties down the use of terms to certain images. But implicit definition concentrates on the purely relational character of the terms. D. Hilbert's geometry is characterized by the use of implicit definitions. For him the meaning of both point and straight line is fixed by the relation that two and only two points determine a straight line. This [108] definition fits Euclid’s definitions but it also fits the coordinates and equations of coordinate geometry.

3.3 Verifiable and Non-verifiable Images

Let us examine more closely the role of images in description and in explanation. When you describe something you are relating how it looks to you, how you perceive it, hear it, touch, smell or taste it. You are relating things to yourself by way of sensible properties. If there is a disagreement with someone, then, you go back to the data and the images. You might have a disagreement as to whether a certain star is twinkling, whether smoke from the flame is black, gray, white, or a mixture; whether a flame makes a noise; whether the heavenly bodies are moving. How do you solve such disagreements? You look again more carefully, more attentively, more honestly. In description there is always a sensible image and our description must be in conformity with the image as sensed.

When you explain something you are relating things to one another; you are setting up a framework of concepts; you are prescinding from the observer and how it looks to you. Concepts are products of intelligence and not of the imagination. Insight abstracts the forms from the images. At the level of explanation there are no verifiable representative images. We can have an image of warmth, but we do not have an image of temperature; we have an image of weight but we have no image of mass. Theory, system, explanation, definition, measurement go beyond the field of representative images, because by definition they are relating things to one another.

On the other hand, we have already said that we cannot think or know without images. So what do we do? In the field of explanation we construct useful, heuristic, symbolic images to help us to think clearly and make progress. Niels Bohr suggested a very successful image of the atom. He gave us the picture of the atom with its nucleus of protons and neutrons at the center with layers of electrons spinning round in fixed orbits much like the planetary system. It was an image that embodied all that had been learned about the atom up to that time; it suggested fruitful questions as to the relations between the subatomic particles; it was helpful in studying the [109] relations between elements and suggested possible explanations of how elements bond together to form molecules. But it is not, and was not, what atoms look like in reality. It is a constructed, symbolic, heuristic image. It is not verifiable as an image. To verify an image you must have the corresponding sensation. To see what atoms look like in reality, you must be able to see them. At the moment it is not possible to see individual atoms; it may eventually be possible to construct a microscope to produce a visual image of the atom. Bohr would not be surprised if it did not look like his constructed image. Others might be disappointed. The unfortunate thing is that we often confuse the constructed symbolic images of explanation with representative verifiable images of description.

The same paradox recurs in the other sciences such as botany and biology. You can describe a tree but can also define a tree. Most of us can describe a tree but the botanist cannot be satisfied with description and must move on to explanatory definition. The definition of a tree is to be found in botany textbooks, where each species is classified in terms of their relation to one another; in terms of structural and functional similarities and dissimilarities with other plants; in terms of the chemical and physical processes needed for the functioning of the tree. It is only the botanist who can define the tree in terms of relations, systems, functions and correlations. The description of the tree leads up to the definition. The tree, as defined, cannot be imagined; there is no verifiable image of the tree as defined; relations, functions, structures, systems, intelligibilities cannot be imagined.

We use various kinds of symbols to help us to think and the more apt the symbol the better. Letters are symbols but some alphabetical systems are more apt than others; the Egyptians had their hieroglyphics, the Babylonians had theirs, the Hebrews had theirs; somehow our alphabet emerged as the most flexible and appropriate. Numerals are symbols; the Egyptians had their lines by which they counted; the Romans had their notation but it was very cumbersome and was abandoned for our present system. Leibniz and Newton both invented the calculus, but the symbolism of Leibniz was more suggestive and helpful and was adopted. Letters [110] and numbers are constructed images and can aid or hinder conceptual thinking.

There is an important principle here, which applies not only to the atom but also to all of the explanatory sciences, including philosophy and theology. Once you start creating technical terminology, defining and explaining things as they relate to one another, then, you have left the field of verifiable images and entered the field of constructed symbolic images. Explanation prescinds from observers and therefore prescinds from observables and from verifiable images.

Every scientific discipline moves from description into explanation. The kind of thinking, imagining, verifying, is quite different in the two realms of knowing. Endless confusion arises when these two realms are not clearly distinguished. Scientists often confuse the verifiable images of description with the unverifiable, symbolic images of explanation. Instead of asking, What is it? They are often asking, What does it look like? Instead of telling us what has been verified, they give us a picture of what scientific reality looks like. We do need images to think but it should be intelligence that is in control. If imagination takes control it tends to become the criterion of what is real and we are back to picture thinking of description. We tend to be more at home in the world of description and images. To move into the world of theory, concepts, relating things to one another, verifiable relations, demands an intellectual asceticism, which is difficult to sustain. Yet it is clear that this distinction must be made and that it is of fundamental and universal relevance.

4. Description and Explanation

There is a continuity between description and explanation. It is the same object, which is first described and, then, defined and verified. If it were not so, then, description would not be preparing the way for explanation. Describing the chemical elements prepares the way for their definition in terms of atomic weight and empirically verified relations with other elements. Biology starts with descriptions of the appearance of animals, their sensible [111] similarities with other animals, descriptions of their anatomy etc. to lead into explanation of where they fit in the evolutionary tree, whether they are mammals, vertebrates, crustaceans, etc. Description is the 'tweezers' which holds the sample until scientific explanation can be brought to bear.

Description and explanation are complementary procedures. They are both valid forms of human knowing. All you have to do to avoid confusion is to continually add the proviso, from the point of view of description, from the point of view of explanation. Does the sun rise in the East and set in the West? From the viewpoint of description it is certainly true. Any student who reports that he sees the sun rising in the West and setting in the East needs to have his coordinates straightened out. Does that mean that we disagree with Copernicus? No, because Copernicus is looking at the solar system from the point of view of explanation. If we prescind from the observer and relate the movements of the planets and the sun to one another, then, you can state that the earth is rotating on its axis and revolving around the sun. They are two different valid points of view. All we have to do to avoid confusion is to be clear whether we are adopting a descriptive or explanatory point of view. Nothing but confusion can and does ensue when these points of view are not distinguished.

The explanatory view will have an effect back on our description and our images. The common sense of the twentieth century is different from the common sense of the seventeenth. The technical language of the scientists has been popularized and become part of our culture. The big bang, black holes, curved space, fission, fusion, genes, chromosomes, etc. is part of the common language of the twentieth century. Within the context of science they have an explanatory definition. In popular culture they are interesting pictures, images, stories. In simple, traditional cultures it was easy to think in terms of occult forces and properties that had a life and power of their own; it was easy to think of the heavenly bodies as alive, as active, as perfect, as Gods; that was the common sense of those times.

Now we are in a position to respond to the attempts of John Locke, Immanuel Kant and others to formulate this distinction. [112] Locke used the terms primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities were real and belonged to science; secondary qualities were not real but merely apparent and to be discarded. We drew our distinction between description and explanation on a different basis. We drew it on the basis of our experience of two different kinds of insight which we have identified in many examples and which ground two different but related points of view. Both description and explanation can be verified and so are human knowing. Description usually prepares the way for explanation and explanation leads back to description. All the data is to be admitted and accounted for. We do not allow of an arbitrary brushing aside of data, as Locke did with secondary qualities, just because it is difficult to pin down. We appeal to our own experience of knowing to identify this pivoting between description and explanation and to show that both kinds of knowing are valid and have their own advantages and disadvantages.

4.1 Transition from Description to Explanation

To illustrate the transition from description to explanation, let us first consider the development in philosophy represented by the shift from Socrates to Aristotle and secondly we will consider the same transition in theology. Description and explanation involve two different kinds of thinking, imagining and knowing. The transition occurs in all sciences but I think it is useful to show it actually, historically occurred in philosophy and theology.

Socrates was deeply convinced that there was a permanence to truth, which the Sophists were undermining by their relativism and skepticism. But Socrates had great difficulty formulating his convictions and demonstrating their truth. He was searching for wisdom, but had to admit that he was not sure what wisdom was. He was sure of his own ignorance and easily demonstrated the ignorance of his foes. His method was to seek 'inductive arguments and universal definitions'.

He initiated his discussions by asking one of the group to propose a definition of 'virtue', 'courage', 'justice', etc. One of the group usually obliged, thinking he had the correct answer. Socrates took that definition as his starting point and invited the group to think of [113] particular examples, and then tested the definition against the examples. It usually did not take long before an example came up which did not fit the definition. Hence the definition had to be rejected because it was not universal. To be universal it would have to cover all the concrete cases of 'justice' or 'courage' or whatever was being defined. Discussion continued along these lines and usually did not result in finding a satisfactory definition. We are entitled to ask, why was Socrates such a consistent failure?

Our answer would be because he remained at the level of description and was not able to set up a theoretical framework of terms and relations, which would shift the discussion into an explanatory framework. Description will rarely give you universal definitions. Description is concerned with the concrete and the particular; it has few theoretical aspirations; it is content with the short-term, the practical, what appeals to imagination and feeling. It is very difficult to set up one explanatory definition because the terms of the definition will remain at the descriptive level. What is needed is a jump to a system of terms and relations, where the terms define the relations and the relations define the terms and the insight fixes both. Such a major shift was not possible at the time of Socrates, the groundwork had not yet been laid.

We can consider Aristotle's Ethics as embodying that explanatory system, which was being sought. Aristotle's earlier work in logic had been indispensable as a preparation. In his logical works he had laid down the requirements for definition and division, the process of demonstration and induction, propositions with their contraries and contradictories and their various types. Next it was important to define ethics and separate out the subject matter and aim of ethics and politics in the framework of the productive, the theoretical and the practical sciences. His work in these areas was an indirect help in clearing the ground for the ethics.

He realized that terms cannot be defined individually, and so he set himself to build up a set of fundamental terms going to the very basis of ethics and then working out the details. In Book One of the Nicomachean Ethics he attempts to define 'the good', 'happiness', 'final end', 'self-sufficient', and other terms in their relations with one another. He appealed to the concrete for descriptions of examples of these but [114] his aim was explanation; theoretical universal definitions in a system.

In the context of these clarifications he was able to go on to habits and to define virtue as a mean and vice as one of the extremes (Book 2). Then he was able to clarify the notions of voluntary and involuntary, choice, deliberation and wish (Book 3). It was only then that he set out to define individual virtues (Book 4 and 5). Here he was setting up a system where each virtue was flanked by the vices, which erred, by defect and by excess. It was an explanatory system something analogous to the periodic table in chemistry. Each virtue and each vice was defined in terms of one another. Sometimes words already existed to cover these terms and he gave descriptive terms an explanatory meaning. Sometimes he had to stretch already existing words to give them a new explanatory meaning. Sometimes he had to invent new words to fit in his explanation.

After this he was able to distinguish moral and intellectual virtues, discuss friendship and to finish it all off with reflections on pleasure, happiness, the good life, and his ideal of the contemplative life (Book 10). He ends with a return to the concrete, the kind of way of life which he values most as worthy of man, the kind of life that produces true happiness. His achievement can be judged by the fact that his text has survived two millennia of attempts to do better and some reputable scholars still think that nobody has surpassed him.

We are just looking at this as an example of explanation at its best. Socrates was swimming in confusion and not even realizing why, nor what might be the way out. Plato begins to sort out the issues, clarify the use of terms, distinguish true and false kinds of knowing, experiment with different methods and move towards theory and explanation. But it is only Aristotle who realizes that 'he shall be as king who can define and divide'. Aristotle starts from the concrete from the opinions of other philosophers, from common sense and from concrete examples. He moves into an explanatory framework because his desire to understand forces him to shift from description to explanation. He wants to be clear, to have universal definitions, he wants to cover every concrete case imaginable, and to do that he has to shift to theory. So he sets up his technical terminology, shifts the meaning of the words he is using and invents [115] new words in order to set up his cluster of terms and relations. But the end is to return to the concrete, to return to describe the way of life to be prized above all as worthy of man. Aristotle was not a conceptualist. He did not want to remain at the level of abstractions; concepts were not an end in themselves; they were to be used to illuminate the concrete and to guide concrete living.

We took the example of Aristotle because it is such a clear example of the successful shift from description to explanation in the field of philosophy. But any philosophy worthy of its salt will have to be explanatory. The questions that a philosopher asks reveal the inadequacy of the descriptive approach; it is too ambiguous and approximate; it does not have sufficient clarity and cannot support the burden of criticism too deeply. One can expect that the terms of philosophy will be defined in terms of explanatory relations with other terms. We can expect that it will abstract from the concrete by way of insight into the universal. It will need a network of concepts, not as an end in itself but as a way of illuminating and clarifying the concrete. We cannot expect a professional philosophy to be expressed in the language of the newspapers; we cannot expect it to appeal immediately to people of common sense; we cannot expect an appeal to imagination, to examples, symbols, and stories. Just as we do not expect to understand theoretical physics without a long and thorough preparation and study, so we cannot expect to take up a book of philosophy and grasp its message unless we have some training in philosophy.

4.2 Transition in Theology

The same transition can be identified in the development of theology. Let us just have a brief look at the transition from the scriptures to the systematic theology of Thomas Aquinas. Needless to say this can only be a sketch and our interest in this is simply as an example of shifting from insights of the descriptive type to those of explanation.

The Scriptures are almost entirely descriptive. They were written by men of common sense, for people of common sense in the Hebrew culture which had a practical wisdom but little by way of a theoretical differentiation of conscious ness. The gospels teach by [116] way of examples, stories, proverbs, rules of thumb, appeal to symbols. It is full of analogies, allegories, myths, admonitions, promises and threats. It is only very slowly that rudimentary creeds emerge expressing some grasp of the essentials of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. In understanding the gospel stories we have to be prepared for ambiguity, for confusion, for apparent contradiction; even though the faith of the apostles was deep, strong and clear on the core of Jesus message, yet it was expressed in descriptive terminology and we have to use careful exegesis to get at what is meant by the various titles given to Jesus, allusions to the Old Testament, etc.

Further questions arise in the early Church, especially through the missionary work of the Church and its contact with Hellenistic culture. Transferring a teaching from one culture to another is a hazardous occupation at the best of times. But here a teaching is being transferred from a largely descriptive culture to one in which the theory of philosophy, mathematics, music, astronomy, etc. was influential. Eventually the question about Jesus was expressed unequivocally, was He God? or man? or both? And if the latter how could this be? Similarly questions were raised about the Trinity, giving rise to a whole series of formulations most of which we judge by hindsight to be heretical. Questions were asked about Mary, about baptism and rebaptism, about ministry, moral teaching, authority in the church, etc.

Answers that were clear and unequivocal were required. The gospels had spoken in allegories and symbols; now these had to be shifted into an explanatory framework. It was literally a matter of life and death. Technical terms had to be invoked to answer these questions. Gradually these were invoked by the creeds and the definitions of the early Councils and the teachings of Augustine, Athanasius, etc. Elements of systematic meaning were invoked to preserve the authentic understanding of the tradition and to express it unambiguously in a systematic manner.

Perhaps it was only in the Middle Ages that theology became completely explanatory and systematic. Aristotle was invoked as providing some of the background as well as the terms and relations that made this possible. It was a question of seeking a coherent, [117] comprehensive, unambiguous, theoretical expression of the Christian faith. This was required by the level of the culture, the questions that were being asked and the challenges from secular culture, and the exigencies of mission.

In Aquinas we have one great example of such a system. The way had been prepared by the study of the teaching of the Fathers, by the distinction that had been drawn between the natural and the supernatural, by the creeds of the Patristic period, by the work of Augustine. The system of Aristotle presented a basic challenge; was the Christian understanding of man's relationship to God to be integrated with the greatest wisdom of the time or was it to be marginalized and isolated. Aquinas opted for integration and used the philosophy of Aristotle as a basis for setting up a comprehensive systematic theology. It involved distinguishing and relating the natural and the supernatural, reason and faith, the natural virtues and the infused virtues, defining person and nature, processions and relations, sacraments, different kinds of grace, freedom, truth, etc. etc.

Again we are talking of an explanatory system of terms and relations. Systematically he starts from God, his existence, his attributes, as known by reason and as known by faith; then creation as coming from God, nature and man as the crowning point of nature; then man's way back to God by way of the natural virtues and the infused supernatural virtues; Christ who has made this possible, the sacraments and the Church; finally the last things. This is presented by was of the Quaestio; the statement of the truth; apparent contrary arguments; an exposition of the truth and a reply to the objections. The questions unfolded systematically until a particular theme was exhausted and all possible objections answered. Terms were defined, divided and given a technical meaning. Apparent contradictions were resolved.

In catechism class children are taught what is a sacrament, that there are seven sacraments and each can be defined. It is surprising to think that Peter the apostle did not know what a sacrament was, nor how many there were. Theory goes beyond the immediate appeal of the stories and persons of the gospels. The difference is so great that some are tempted to abandon the achievement of [118] systematic meaning and to go back to the scriptures. Our understanding of the purpose of the shift from description to explanation shows us why that is not possible. We seek an understanding at the level of our times. Our culture sets the questions, problems and challenges that have to be answered clearly and unequivocally whenever possible. Authenticity does not consist in returning to the beginning, in abandoning permanent achievement, in primitivism. Authenticity is to be faithful to the exigencies of questioning, which lead inexorably over time to more apt and clear expressions of our faith seeking understanding.

Explanation and system is not to be thought of as a flight from reality into the safe world of concepts and theories. It is the culture that sets the questions, problems and challenges that a systematic theology has to tackle. The purpose of the definitions and explanations is to facilitate the return to the concrete in a way that will be faithful to the original message. Aquinas was not a conceptualist but an intellectualist. The modern theologian similarly has to do theology at the level of his time and that requires an explanatory framework appropriate to the culture of today.

5. Balance between Description and Explanation

We have tried to show in the foregoing how natural and necessary is the transition from description to explanation. It is part of authentic development of understanding that we shift from relating things to ourselves to relating them to one another. We have illustrated the various shifts in terminology, definition and point of view involved. Common sense is inherently limited to the practical, concrete and imaginary; seeking to go beyond common sense, we are led to relate things to one another whether it is in the empirical sciences, the human sciences, philosophy or theology.

Our procedure in this text is, similarly, to start with description and move on to explanation. Our data is the data of consciousness, not the data of sense. Our questions are about the activities involved in thinking, in science and in common sense. We started with general descriptions; we described the activity of insight; we gave different historical examples for comparison and identification; we [119] distinguished insights of description and insights of explanation. We will continue to describe inverse insight, reflective insights, classical and statistical methods, etc. We are moving towards a definition of insight but we have not yet set up all the pieces that are necessary for the full explanatory definition. When we reach Cognitional Structure in Chapter 8, we should be in a position to put all of the pieces together in a fully explanatory fashion and define insight in relation to the other components that are central to the activity of human knowing.

When we have done that, we will be in a position to reconsider in greater depth and with greater clarity some of the implications of the act of understanding. We will be able to see the methodological implications of insight. We will be able to consider aberrant views on human knowing and grasp why they are wrong. We will be in a position to understand the foundations of knowing and to move to the structure of the known. We will be in a position to give an account of human misunderstanding; how is it that philosophers are always getting it wrong? What is the basic source of continual confusion on knowing and the real?

Let us conclude this chapter with a reminder of some of the imbalances which occur between descriptive and explanatory thinking.

There is a danger of clinging to the descriptive and thinking that the explanatory is needless, useless, theoretical nonsense. Much of modern theology seeks to be popular by remaining at the descriptive level; by appealing to what is relevant, what catches the imagination, what is easy to communicate, what is deemed immediately practical. The return to the sources is sometimes interpreted as a return to description and the abandonment of explanatory understanding. This brand of common sense decries the need for theory, mocks the systematic theologians, and appeals to the simplicity of the scriptures. But the price paid by these theologians is very high; in confusion, ambiguity, and stifling further questions. Because they are relevant and appealing to symbols that are popular today, they become irrelevant when the fashion and symbols change tomorrow. Because they appeal to this particular people, it will not appeal to people of a different culture [12] across the border. Staying at the descriptive level can only be an illusion.

One of the great advantages of explanation is that it, to some extent, rises above the culture of the time and place and can be transmitted across cultures. There is a permanence to genuine achievement. No one could have been more Greek than Euclid, yet few would claim that teaching Euclidean geometry today is cultural imperialism.

On the other hand, you can have theories that remain at the theoretical level, that never return to the concrete, that become conceptualist in being wrapped up in themselves. The conceptualist is content in dealing with the interrelationship of concepts with one another. He is not concerned with a return to the concrete. This is an abuse of the explanatory viewpoint. Although explanation aims at abstraction it is an enriching, not an impoverishing abstraction. It is an enriching abstraction because it confers intelligibility, meaning, definition and law on the concrete. There is a reference back to the concrete, a reorganization of description in the light of explanation and a posing of further questions in a dynamic on-going process.

Finally, there is confusion when there is a mixture between description and explanation and an inability to distinguish two different points of view. Much of the popularization of modern sciences and the philosophy of science cannot discriminate between description and explanation. We still have people who are puzzled and confused by Eddington's dilemma. Theologians also are torn between the call to be relevant, popular, inspiring and the exigence of theory and system. In this text we are working towards the world of interiority. We can distinguish between description and explanation because we have identified two different kinds of insights in our own cognitional experience. We can distinguish concepts from images, explanation from description, not on the basis of the authority of some author but on the basis of our own experience of understanding.

We have spent much time and energy on this distinction because of its fundamental importance for any development of understanding. A grasp of this distinction would illuminate many modern debates in theology, philosophy and science, where the confusion of primary qualities and secondary qualities and other inadequate distinctions still reign.

Comments on the Exercises.

All of the preliminary exercises have been discussed and solved in the text of this chapter.


End Notes

1 Insight, 188.

2 Insight, see index on description, explanation, description-explanation, measurement, definition.

3 The Sophists were a group of thinkers who held that our knowledge is relative; that intellectual skills should be used to win arguments in court cases regardless of truth. They were skeptical of moral values and truth. Protagoras was one of these.

4 Paul Edwards (Ed), The Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, (London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1967) See article on "Primary and Secondary Qualities" by R. J. Hirst .Also John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, (London: Dent, 1947)

5 Sir Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, (Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1928), xi-xv.

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