Saturday, 29 November 2014

20th-Century Causation (in Broad Outline)

Why is causation seen as so important in (analytic) philosophy? Well, think about all the causal concepts there are: ‘produce’, ‘yield’, ‘generate’, ‘result’ and so on. These causal concepts alone could produce a vast amount of philosophical analysis. For example, when you produce baked beans is it the same as when one produces a conclusion to an argument? When an equation yields a solution, does it do so in the same way in which a mechanism yields a product? Is the result of an inference the same as the result of a football match? What do all these causal processes (if they are all causal) share?

As Jaegwon Kim puts it:

If we cleansed our language of all expressions that involve causal concepts, we would be left with an extremely impoverished skeleton of a language manifestly inadequate for our needs.” (411)

Surely one can go further than this and say that there couldn’t be a language at all without any causal concepts. And if that's the case, we couldn’t speak or even think at all – at least not in the way in which we speak and think today. This isn't a surprising conclusion if you accepts the very basic fact that causation is something that occurs at almost every moment of our lives – indeed, it's something we do and are involved in at every moment of our lives.

At this very moment, I'm causing these words to appear on the computer screen. There are causal processes going on in my mind or brain. I can hear the radio, and that is a causal process which involves sound-waves impinging on my ears and entering my mind which will itself bring about mental causal processes. There are even causal processes going on deep within the computer mouse which I'm using while typing these words.

Because of all the above, we can say that “causation is intimately tied to explanation: to explain why or how an event occurred is often, if not always, to identify its cause, an event or condition that brought it about” (411). However, when we explain a causal process, we may not always use the word ‘cause’ in our explanation. We may not even use causal words like ‘generate’, ‘produce’ and so on.

For example, when I say that “John killed Mary” I don't use the words “John caused the death of Mary” or even a causal word like “John brought about the death of Mary”.

We can even argue that nearly all explanation is causal in nature.

There are exceptions.

If I ask you to explain why 2 plus 2 equal 4, that explanation will not be causal in nature. Similarly, if I ask you to explain why you believe that 2 plus 2 equals 4, your explanation will not be causal in nature. If you were to explain to me your belief in God, perhaps that couldn't be a causal explanation – at least not a completely causal explanation.

Causation is of such fundamental importance in science because “knowledge of causal relations seems essential to our ability to make predictions about the future and control the course of natural events” (411). If there were no strict and universal causal relations between events and which were fundamental to the constitution of objects and conditions, then we could never predict that if I were to do X, Y would occur after doing X.

We predict all the time. We must predict all the time. And without causation, there could be no predication at all.

We also require the existence of casual processes which are universal in order to control events and the course of our lives generally. If causal regularity were not a reality, then when I switched on the light I could never expect the light to go on as it had done the day before. What happened yesterday may not also happen today without causal regularity. Is it any wonder that David Hume called causation “the cement of the universe”?

Causal Event-Types

What is a singular causal relation?

It is a causal relation between two individual events?

Thus can we see that causation on this account occurs between events, not between objects, conditions, facts or anything else? In terms of a causal relation between two individual events, such a relation “must be covered by a lawful regularity between kinds of events under which cause and effect fall” (411). At first we stressed events; now we're stressing the kind of event/s involved in a causal relation. An example of a kind of event would be a car crash or the kicking of a football or a natural event like the wind blowing the leaves on a tree.

J.L. Mackie on Causation

According J.L. Mackie, a “cause is a condition that, though insufficient in itself for its effect, is a necessary part of a condition that is unnecessary” (411). That means that such a cause, on its own, will not bring about the effect. However, without the condition, the effect would not happen. Thus it is necessary; though not sufficient in and of itself.

Thus if I put a lighted match to gas, it should cause that gas to light – though only if there is oxygen in the air. The gas would not light without the lighted match. So when the gas is actually lighted by that match, the match light was necessary. It was not sufficient because oxygen in the air is also necessary. (We can also say, here, that it is also necessary, in a negative sense, that there is no wind in the air.)

However, Mackie’s last explanation is harder to immediately grasp. He argues that such a condition “is a necessary part of a condition that is unnecessary” (411). This means that although the cause, the lighted match, is necessary, though not sufficient in this case, the overall condition itself is unnecessary because the lighted gas could be caused by another set of necessary and sufficient conditions.

For example, it could be caused, in theory, by a spark off a machine of some kind. Again, if that were the case, that spark off a machine would also be necessary, though not sufficient in that this condition too would require other conditions such as the presence of oxygen and the lack of wind.

All this in itself shows us how complex causation can be; especially if we think in terms of a single cause causing a single effect.

Donald Davidson on Extensional Causal Events

Donald Davidson believes that causation “is an extensional binary relation between concrete events” (411). It's extensional because it's about concrete events in the world. More than that, it's extensional because it doesn't matter how that causal process is ‘described’.

This seems to mean that description is intensional in nature. Or at least that the description will involve intensional idioms of some form.

What does it mean to say that description is intensional or that causation is an extensional binary relation between concrete events regardless of how these events are described?

Perhaps if I describe my lighting the match to light the gas in this way: “I decided to light the match.” Here, I suppose, the predicate ‘decided’ is intensional in nature in that it is a propositional attitude which can't be extensional in nature. Perhaps all descriptions also involve a viewpoint that is by nature intensional in nature. The very fact that I say ‘I want to light the case’ involves the intensional term ‘want’. Is it also the fact that these examples are explanations and explanations are intensional or, at least non-extensional?

Jaegwon Kim says that “causation differs from explanation, which is sensitive to how events are represented” (411). Explanations explain causation; though explanations are evidently not themselves examples of causation. This is clear.

The non-extensional aspect of the causal explanation is that it is ‘represented’ and here ‘represented’ must be an intensional term. The extensional reality of causation must be what that causation is regardless of minds or descriptions or representations. More correctly, the only things that will be referred to in a fully extensional account of a causal process are the concrete conditions, processes, events and objects which take part in that causal process.

We can say, then, that a causal explanation will contain a Fregean ‘sense’ – it will not be fully extensional.

How do we talk about causation without representations, descriptions and senses?

Wesley Salmon on Causation

Wesley C. Salmon argues that the “traditional view to which the causal relation holds between individual events covered by a law is fundamentally mistaken” (411). This appears to be an argument against Donald Davidson’s (amongst others) position. It also appears to be against the general scientific view and perhaps also the position of the layperson.

What is Salmon’s position?

He argues that “processes, rather than events, must be taken as fundamental in understanding causation” (411). One’s immediate reaction to this is to say that either processes are events or that ‘process’ is a synonym of ‘event’. What is the different between an event and a process?

Kim writes that the

basic problem of causation, or 'Hume’s challenge', is to provide a principled distinction between genuine causal processes and pseudo-processes, processes that, although they exhibit regular, even lawlike, connections between their elements (like the successive shadows cast be a car), are not real causal processes” (411).

Firstly, not all connections between events or processes are examples of causal ‘processes’. Even if these events “exhibit regular, even lawlike connections between their elements”.

For example, every time I open the window an owl may coo. This may be a coincidence. But even if it is not a coincidence that my opening the window makes the owl coo, this still may not be a real causal process in that at one time, in the future, or even the next time, the owl does not necessarily coo when I open the window. It may learn to ignore my opening of the window. Thus this would show that the connection between my window-opening and the owl cooing is not a ‘real’ causal process. There could, in theory, by a real causal connection between the two; though that would need to be established by investigation.

Michael Tooley’s Singularist Account of Causation

Let us now take Michael Tooley’s ‘singularist account’.


rejects the assumption underlying most attempts at an analysis of causation: namely, that causal facts supervene on noncausal facts – that is to say, once all noncausal facts (including laws of nature) of a world are fixed, that fixes all the causal facts as well” (411).

This seems to imply that ‘causal facts’ are explanatory facts in that they are a superadded facts about noncausal facts. That is, the noncausal facts are not, in themselves, causal in nature. The causal facts ‘supervene’ on the noncausal facts.

It's interesting to note that the laws of nature are also seen as noncausal in nature (on the ‘traditional’ reading which Tooley rejects). It would also seem to imply that causal facts are not (really) part of the world; but only part of explanation (therefore intensional?).

Tooley also argues “against the view that causal relations between individual events must always be subsumed, or covered, by general regularities” (412). That means that certain causal relations are ‘singular’ in nature in that they aren't cases of regularity or that they needn't instantiate or fall under a law. This appears to be similar to Hume’s position in that he too denied that we could make lawlike statements about the ‘universality’ of any causal connection. This would mean, then, that certain causal connections don't take part in any causal law or even instantiate or exhibit a causal regularity. This position, then, not only seems to go against the traditional scientific and philosophical view on all causal processes: it even goes against the layperson’s view.

In conclusion, then, Tooley offers us his ‘singularist’ account that “allows a pair of events to be related as cause and effect without being covered by any law” (412). This seems counter-intuitive. However, perhaps it only seems counter-intuitive to me because I have been brought up with the view that all genuinely causal processes instantiate or exhibit causal laws of some kind.

Now we must see how Tooley defends his position.

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