New theory on explanatory completeness

Joanna Korman and I recently published a paper in Acta Psychologica that introduces a new model-based theory on how people judge whether one explanation is more complete than another. The paper introduces both the theory as well as five separate studies validating the theory’s predictions. The abstract is here:

All explanations are incomplete, but reasoners think some explanations are more complete than others. To explain this behavior, we propose a novel theory of how people assess explanatory incompleteness. The account assumes that reasoners represent explanations as causal mental models – iconic representations of possible arrangements of causes and effects. A complete explanation refers to a single integrated model, whereas an incomplete explanation refers to multiple models. The theory predicts that if there exists an unspecified causal relation – a gap – anywhere within an explanation, reasoners must maintain multiple models to handle the gap. They should treat such explanations as less complete than those without a gap. Four experiments provided participants with causal descriptions, some of which yield one explanatory model, e.g., A causes B and B causes C, and some of which demand multiple models, e.g., A causes X and B causes C. Participants across the studies preferred one-model descriptions to multiple-model ones on tasks that implicitly and explicitly required them to assess explanatory completeness. The studies corroborate the theory. They are the first to reveal the mental processes that underlie the assessment of explanatory completeness. We conclude by reviewing the theory in light of extant accounts of causal reasoning.

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