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Manipulationism, Ceteris Paribus Laws, and the Bugbear of Background Knowledge

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According to James Woodward’s manipulationism, to explain an event is to show how it could be changed by manipulating its cause. The relevant intervention must be a ‘serious possibility’, distinct from mere logical or physical possibility and approximating something I call ‘scientific possibility’. I argue that background knowledge is indispensable for judgements of scientific possibility and that ‘invariant’ generalisations, the primary vehicles of explanation in manipulationism, are not well adapted to encoding this often implicit knowledge, especially in the social sciences. A survey of key social scientific research methods (case and comparative studies, randomised control trials, ethnography, and structural equation modelling) shows that the output of these methods is generated by causal and non-causal background knowledge meshing in a way that is better encapsulated in an updated theory of Ceteris Paribus generalisations.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Philosophy, University of the Witwatersrand,

Publication date: July 3, 2017

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