Limitative computational explanations


*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review


What is computational explanation? Many accounts treat it as a kind of causal explanation. I argue against two more specific versions of this view, corresponding to two popular treatments of causal explanation. The first holds that computational explanation is mechanistic, while the second holds that it is interventionist. However, both overlook an important class of computational explanations, which I call limitative explanations. Limitative explanations explain why certain problems cannot be solved computationally, either in principle or in practice. I argue that limitative explanations are not plausibly understood in either mechanistic or interventionist terms. One upshot of this argument is that there are causal and non-causal kinds of computational explanation. I close the paper by suggesting that both are grounded in the notion of computational implementation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3441-3461
JournalPhilosophical Studies
Issue number12
Early online date8 Oct 2023
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The work described in this paper was partially supported by a Senior Research Fellowship award from the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong SAR, China (‘Philosophy of Contemporary and Future Science’, Project no. SRFS2122-3H01).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V.


  • Computer science
  • Explanation
  • Implementation
  • Mathematical explanation
  • Physical computation


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