The distinctiveness of disease explanation

History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine Colloquium, Lauren Ross, University of California, Irvine

The philosophical literature on explanation is full of colorful examples from science and ordinary life contexts. These examples include explanatory targets such as: blocks sliding down an incline, eye color of fruit flies, length of a flagpole's shadow, movement of ocean tides, and extinction of the dinosaurs. In much of this literature, disease traits are discussed as a common explanatory target. This is seen in Hempel's discussion of childbed fever and measles (Hempel 1965), Salmon's example of paresis as a symptom of syphilis (Salmon 1984), Kitcher's reflections on Huntington’s disease (Kitcher 2003), and Woodward's discussion of psychiatric diseases, such as schizophrenia (Woodward 2010).

Including these biomedical examples in a theoretical analysis of scientific explanation is a welcome move in philosophy. However, while attention to disease examples has the advantage of properly including these cases in analyses of scientific explanation, it has the curious disadvantage of suggesting that disease traits are no different from all other explanatory targets. A main aim of this talk will involve questioning this assumption. In particular, I will explore ways in which disease explanation differs from standard accounts of explanation in philosophy of science. This talk will consider: (i) ways in which disease traits are conceptualized as explanatory targets, (ii) the process in which these targets are explained, and how (i) and (ii) differ from standard scientific explanations in the philosophical literature.