Area 1 History of Science and Religion

This area of the project will examine a number of case studies to shed light on the role, status and nature of ‘conjunctive explanations’ in the past. The focus will be on debates about explanations of evolutionary change in the period 1870-1930. Explanatory pluralism in evolutionary biology has a long and contested history and continues to be a lively area of discussion among philosophers of biology. In addition, this area of intellectual inquiry has an equally rich and controverted history of entanglement with more metaphysical and theological concerns.

Engagements with evolutionary biology in this period thus provide compelling examples of conjunctive explanations that operated among leading evolutionary theorists with an interest in theological debates and philosophical theologians interested in evolutionary science. The overlap between evolution and theology is particularly relevant to a key aspect of the project, which seeks to investigate conjunctive explanations that integrate or relate scientific and theological accounts of nature.

With these general concerns in mind, the researchers involved with this area will address the following questions:

  • What form did promotion of, or resistance to, explanatory pluralism take among evolutionary theorists in the decades around 1900?
  • How did metaphysical commitments shape attitudes towards explanatory pluralism and conjunctive explanations in evolutionary biology?
  • What role did theological and/or metaphysical assumptions play in generating competing or conjunctive explanations of evolutionary change?
  • What attitudes did theological thinkers adopt towards conjunctive or competing explanations in evolutionary biology?
Area 2 Philosophy of Science

This area of the project will investigate how multiple explanations can relate to each other through the use of formal analysis and computer simulations. The first component of the research in this area will be to explore the nature of conjunctive explanation by identifying when two explanatory hypotheses work together conjunctively to provide a better explanation of relevant evidence than either hypothesis would on its own. More formally, it seeks to answer the following question:.

  • If h1 and h2 are distinct hypotheses each offering potential explanations of evidence e, under what conditions does the conjunctive hypothesis h1 & h2 provide a better explanation of e than do either h1 or h2 on their own?

This is a particular instance of the more general problem of determining when one explanatory hypothesis provides a better explanation than another. As such, it is of fundamental importance to scientific reasoning. Various approaches based on measures of evidential support, explanatory power, competition and information will be explored.

The second component of the research in this area explores the relevance of conjunctive to scientific inference. It will address the following question:

  • How does scientific inference in contexts where there are conjunctive explanations differ from contexts where the explanations are competing?

This will be investigated in the context of the mode of inference known as Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) or Abductive Reasoning, which has been studied at length in both philosophy of science and computer science. Typically, the explanatory hypotheses are assumed to be competing, but how do the results change when this assumption is dropped? The research will propose a version of IBE appropriate for cases where some of the hypotheses may not be competing and will evaluate this approach through the use of computer simulations.

Area 3 Science and Religion

Having explored the concept of conjunctive explanation both historically and philosophically, this area of the project explores implications of these findings for contemporary issues in science and religion. This is achieved by first of all exploring the concept of conjunctive explanation in a general science and religion context and then more specifically to recent work on evolutionary biology. On the first of these points, the project seeks to answer the following question:

  • How can the concept of conjunctive explanation be used to provide a framework for exploring the relationship between science and religion and how does this approach relate to other recent work in the field?

The first step in addressing this question will be to develop an informal account of conjunctive explanation based on the formal account proposed in area 2 and constrained by the fact that it should do justice to the historical work in area 1.

In addition to looking at science and religion in general, area 3 will also focus on modern engagement between religion and specific scientific theories known for potentially clashing with religious beliefs, with special attention being given to theories in evolutionary biology. This is a natural choice given the historical focus of area 1. On this topic, the project will address the following question:

  • How can the historical and philosophical work on conjunctive explanation shed light on contemporary interactions between religion and evolutionary biology?

Addressing this question will again bring together insights from areas 1 and 2 of the project. In particular, it will focus on new developments within evolutionary biology which are relevant to a religious perspective and where some of the questions considered in area 1 relating to divine agency and conjunctive explanation arise in a new setting.