Scientific Understanding – What it is and How it is Achieved

Anna Elisabeth Höhl (doctoral project, ongoing)

In my research project I investigate the concept of scientific understanding. The general aim of science is to provide us with an understanding of our world, to enable us to understand natural and social phenomena. But what exactly does it mean when scientists claim that they now understand a phenomenon? What is scientific understanding? And how do scientists achieve it?

Philosophers of science as well as epistemologists have not been interested in the concept of understanding until approximately 25 years ago. Since then, the community of philosophers working on issues related to scientific understanding, and on understanding in general, is growing considerably. More and more issues and questions concerning understanding arise and I develop answers to some of these questions in my dissertation.

A central question in the debate on understanding is the relation of understanding to explanation. Is explanation necessary for understanding or is it possible to achieve understanding without explanation? I argue that scientific understanding cannot be acquired without explanation, leaving open the possibility that other forms of understanding might not depend on explanation. Additionally, I explore the notion of ‘skill’ and argue that for reaching understanding, not only certain cognitive, material, and social skills are needed, but that understanding itself is a complex cognitive skill. Therefore, I disagree with accounts of understanding that take understanding to be a kind of knowledge.

In order to develop an account of scientific understanding that accommodates scientific practice, I analyze a case from biology. Namely, how the introduction of zebrafish as a model organism into research enabled understanding of the genetic regulation of vertebrate development. My investigations lead to the characterization of scientific understanding of an empirical phenomenon as a cognitive ability to use knowledge and skills for grasping relations of the phenomenon and articulating them in form of new explanations of the phenomenon.

In my dissertation project, I focus on the relation of scientific understanding to explanation, knowledge, and skills. However, there are many more questions about understanding that are addressed in the current literature: How is understanding related to truth? How can models and idealizations provide understanding? Is understanding compatible with epistemic luck? What does it mean to misunderstand a phenomenon? These are just a few exemplary questions. (Scientific) Understanding still holds many interesting and exciting questions.