Archive for the ‘historical explanation’ Category

Don’t confuse an explanation of causes with an acceptance of results

September 23, 2007

I started reading the book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.  The purpose of the book is to answer this question:

“Why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents?”

For example, why did some places have iron and machines, while others were still using stone?

Before answering the question, he addresses this objection:

“If we succeed in explaining how some people came to dominate other people, may this not seem to justify the domination?”

His answer to the objection is profound:

“This objection rests on a common tendency to confuse an explanation of causes with a justification or acceptance of results.  What use one makes of a historical explanation is a question separate from the explanation itself.  Understanding is more often used to try to alter an outcome than to repeat or perpetuate it.  That’s why psychologists try to understand genocide, and why physicians try to understand the causes of human disease.  Those investigators do not seek to justify genocide or illness.  Instead, they seek to use their understanding of a chain of causes to interrupt the chain.”