Journal Article

Prediction and Explanation in Historical Natural Science

Carol E. Cleland

in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

Published on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science

Volume 62, issue 3, pages 551-582
Published in print September 2011 | ISSN: 0007-0882
Published online February 2011 | e-ISSN: 1464-3537 | DOI:
Prediction and Explanation in Historical Natural Science

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In earlier work (Cleland [2001], [2002]), I sketched an account of the structure and justification of ‘prototypical’ historical natural science that distinguishes it from ‘classical’ experimental science. This article expands upon this work, focusing upon the close connection between explanation and justification in the historical natural sciences. I argue that confirmation and disconfirmation in these fields depends primarily upon the explanatory (versus predictive or retrodictive) success or failure of hypotheses vis-à-vis empirical evidence. The account of historical explanation that I develop is a version of common cause explanation. Common cause explanation has long been vindicated by appealing to the principle of the common cause. Many philosophers of science (e.g., Sober and Tucker) find this principle problematic, however, because they believe that it is either purely methodological or strictly metaphysical. I defend a third possibility: the principle of the common cause derives its justification from a physically pervasive time asymmetry of causation (a.k.a. the asymmetry of overdetermination). I argue that explicating the principle of the common cause in terms of the asymmetry of overdetermination illuminates some otherwise puzzling features of the practices of historical natural scientists.


2The Methodology of Historical Natural Science

3Justification in Historical Natural Science


  3.2Adequate historical explanations are not potential predictions

  3.3The centrality of common cause explanation

4Common Cause Explanation and the Asymmetry of Overdetermination

  4.1The priority of common cause over separate causes explanations

  4.2The threat of information degrading processes

Journal Article.  13768 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Science ; Science and Mathematics

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