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Published September 2021 | Submitted
Journal Article Open

Understanding physics: 'What?', 'Why?', and 'How?'


I want to combine two hitherto largely independent research projects, scientific understanding and mechanistic explanations. Understanding is not only achieved by answering why-questions, that is, by providing scientific explanations, but also by answering what-questions, that is, by providing what I call scientific descriptions. Based on this distinction, I develop three forms of understanding: understanding-what, understanding-why, and understanding-how. I argue that understanding-how is a particularly deep form of understanding, because it is based on mechanistic explanations, which answer why something happens in virtue of what it is made of. I apply the three forms of understanding to two case studies: first, to the historical development of thermodynamics and, second, to the differences between the Clausius and the Boltzmann entropy in explaining thermodynamic processes.

Additional Information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2021. Received 30 July 2020; Accepted 12 July 2021; Published 07 August 2021. I wish to thank Frederick Eberhardt, Christopher Hitchcock, and Tim Maudlin for their support and many helpful discussions. I also thank the audience of the Caltech Philosophy of Physics Reading Group for their comments. Special thanks go to Joshua Eisenthal and Maaneli Derakhshani their help on the passages on Einstein and to Charles Sebens and Federica Malfatti for thoroughly reading and commenting on previous drafts of this paper. Lastly, I wish to thank two anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism and many suggestions for improving the paper. Funding for this research was partially provided by the Swiss National Science Foundation as part of the Early Postdoc.Mobility Fellowship, grant no. 174745. There is no conflict of interest. Ethical approval: Not applicable. Informed consent: Not applicable.

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