The job of science: describe and explain

Relate explanation with causality seems inevitable when it comes to defining what makes science, but this association should be careful, because behind them there are implications that could lead to misconceptions. What then say about description? It would be unwise to point out that many studies are descriptive and not leave, for that reason, to be scientific. Surely that scientific research can take as its objective to describe processes, however one can not therefore infer that the descriptive process is the last activity of science. Angerami says, “doing science is to explain why the facts, and this explanation comes from a solid theoretical base. Each science explains its phenomena based on theoretical assumptions that guide it.” So, what would explain a phenomenon? The physicist Weinberg makes an appointment:

“It can be assumed that something is explained when you find the cause, but a text by Bertrand Russell in 1913, argued that ‘the word “cause” is so inextricably tied to misleading associations that its complete exclusion of philosophical vocabulary becomes desirable ‘. That left the philosophers with a single choice for the distinction between explanation and description, a teleological choice, defining an explanation as a statement of the purpose of the thing explained.”

The problem generated by teleological choices are that we are led to believe that there is purpose in everything that can be explained. Which leaves a dangerous gap in relation to the demarcation problem cited by Iannini who, commenting on the boundaries between science and non-science:

“[…] criteria too loose end against implying acceptance -Intuitive certain practices that could hardly be seen as scientific as astrology, so we take a more extreme case.”

Dawkins cautions “The desire to see purpose everywhere is natural in animal that lives surrounded by machines, piece of art, artifacts and other instruments designed; […]. A car, a can opener, a screwdriver or a pitchfork guarantee the legitimacy of the question “what is the use?”. […] If, in a watercourse, a stone serves as support, we consider its usefulness as an incidental benefit, not something with a real purpose“.

If it follows that there is no purpose in natural phenomena, but rather the result of accidental events, any attempt to define explanation as something related to purpose becomes fails and cannot be sustained as a legitimate problem. Popper argues that “provide a causal explanation of a certain event means to deduce a statement which describes it, using as a premise of the deduction one or more universal laws.”


ANGERAMI, E. L. S. O mister da investigação do enfermeiro. Rev. Latino Am. Enferm. Ribeirão Preto, v. 1, n. 1 – p. 11-22 – janeiro, 1993.
DAWKINS, R. O rio que saía do Éden: uma visão darwiniana da vida. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1996.
IANNINI, G. Psicanálise, ciência extima. Epistemo-Somática, Belo Horizonte, v. 4, n. 1 – p. 69-78 – jan/jul, 2007.
POPPER, K. R. A lógica da pesquisa científica. São Paulo: Cultrix, 1959.
WEINBERG, S. Os limites da explicação científica. Mais, Folha de São Paulo, Junho, 2001. <>

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This work by Alison Felipe Alencar Chaves is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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