Some Concerns Regarding Explanatory Pluralism: The Explanatory Role of Optimality Models


Optimality models are widely used in different parts of biology. Two important questions that have been asked about such models are: are they explanatory and, if so, what type of explanations do they offer? My concern in this paper is with the approach of Rice (2012, 2015) and Irvine (2015), who claim that these models provide non-causal explanations. I argue that there are serious problems with this approach and with the accounts of explanation it is intended to justify. The idea behind this undertaking is to draw attention to an important issue associated with the recent pluralist stance on explanation: the rampant proliferation of theories of explanation. This proliferation supports a pluralist perspective on explanation, and pluralism encourages such a proliferation. But, if we are not careful about how we arrive at and how we justify new accounts of explanation — i.e., if we do not try to avoid the sort of problems discussed in this paper — we may end up trivializing the concept of explanation.


Batterman R. W. (2002), The Devil in the Details: Asymptotic Reasoning in Explanation, Reduction, and Emergence, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Batterman R., Rice C. (2014), “Minimal Model Explanations,” Philosophy of Science 81(3), 349-376.
Elgin M., Sober E. (2002), “Cartwright on Explanation and Idealization,” Erkenntnis 57(3), 441-450.
Gould S. J., Lewontin R. C. (1979), “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 205(1161), 581-598.
Hempel C. G. (1965), Aspects of Scientific Explanation and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Science, New York—London: The Free Press & Collier-Macmillan Ltd.
Irvine E. (2015), “Models, Robustness, and Non-Causal Explanation: A Foray Into Cognitive Science and Biology,” Synthese 192(12), 3943-3959.
Orzack S. H., Sober E. (1994), “Optimality Models and the Test of Adaptationism,” The American Naturalist 143(3), 361.
Parker G. A. (1978), “Searching for Mates” [in:] Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach, J. Krebs, N. Davies (eds.), Oxford: Blackwell, 214-244.
Parker G. A., Maynard Smith J. (1990), “Optimality Theory in Evolutionary Biology,” Nature 348 (6296): 27-33.
Pierce G., Ollason J. (1987), “Eight Reasons Why Optimal Foraging Theory Is a Complete Waste of Time,” Oikos 49(1), 111-118.
Pincock C. (2015), “Abstract Explanations in Science,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 66(4), 857-882.
Potochnik A. (2007), “Optimality Modeling and Explanatory Generality,” Philosophy of Science 74(5), 680-691.
Potochnik A. (2010), “Explanatory Independence and Epistemic Interdependence: A Case Study of the Optimality Approach,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 61(1), 213-233.
Reutlinger A., Saatsi J. (2018), “Introduction: Scientific Explanations Beyond Causation” [in:] Explanation Beyond Causation: Philosophical Perspectives on Non-Causal Explanations, A. Reutlinger, J. Saatsi (eds.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1-11.
Rice C. (2012), “Optimality Explanations: A Plea for an Alternative Approach,” Biology and Philosophy 27(5), 685-703.
Rice C. (2015), “Moving Beyond Causes: Optimality Models and Scientific Explanation,” Noûs 49(3), 589-615.
Rose M. R., Service P. M., Hutchinson E. W. (1987), “Three Approaches to Trade-Offs in Life-History Evolution” [in:] Genetic Constraints on Adaptive Evolution, V. Loeschcke (ed.), Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 91-105.
Salmon W. C. (1984), Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Sklar L. (1993), “Idealization and Explanation: A Case Study From Statistical Mechanics,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 18(1), 258-270.
Strevens M. (2009), Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Târziu G. (2018), “Mathematical Explanations and the Piecemeal Approach to Thinking about Explanation,” Logique et Analyse 61(244), 457-487.
© University of Warsaw. All rights reserved.
Jak cytować
Târziu, G. (2019). Some Concerns Regarding Explanatory Pluralism: The Explanatory Role of Optimality Models. Filozofia Nauki, 28(4), 95-113.