Oct 3, 2017
Explanations can broadly be categorised according to two adjectives: nomological and mechanistic. Mechanistic explanations are to do with cause and effect, and focus on events and causes that immediately precede the fact that we desire to explain. Nomological explanations are based on general principles. The following is the definition of the word "nomological":
nomological. adj. Relating to or denoting principles that resemble laws, especially those laws of nature which are neither logically necessary nor theoretically explicable, but just are so.
Here are some word pairs that I came up with that are near-synonymous to the above two terms, and help to clarify their meaning:
NOMOLOGICAL vs MECHANISTIC. Why vs How. Simplifying explanations vs Causal explanations. Morals of stories vs Stories themselves. General laws vs Causal systems. Strategy vs Tactics. Atemporal vs Temporal. Essence vs Origin. Solution vs Process. Intuition vs Calculation. Cutting the knot vs Untying the knot. Whole vs Parts. "Abstract" vs "Concrete". Art vs Accountancy. Taking the lift vs Walking up the stairs. Market inevitabilities vs Specific catalysts.
Firstly, I think that this is a fascinating topic, and one that is rarely talked about. When was the last time you talked about what kinds or styles of explanations you think are convincing? Did you even realise that there is such a thing as a style of explanation?
Secondly, I think that this can be important when we think about how we are teaching and learning. The best kinds of explanation are both nomological *and* mechanistic - like Yin and Yang, the two complete each other to provide "thorough" explanations. There are also certain kinds of explanations that are more appropriate for beginners.
Apparently, there is some research showing that cognitive styles (as the above are called) vary by discipline, so that, for example, linguists tend to think much more nomologically than psychologists. There is also evidence demonstrating that people's tastes in this regard don't tend to change much over time, partly because of natural disposition, but partly due to the self-reinforcing nature of holding a certain kind of taste and then mixing with your own kind.
This episode is inspired by the article Cognitive Styles in Two Cognitive Sciences by James Myers, but most of the content is my own thinking around this issue.
Enjoy the episode.