Monday, March 12, 2018

Causation versus Explanation

It turns out that the ideas that I posted yesterday - my "pre-study" ideas of causation - turn out to be philosophically . . . um . . . wrong.

I want to remind the reader that I have never studied theories of causation outside of the realm of moral responsibility. I am learning as I go. And, mayhaps, I can help you to learn as I go as well.

Recall that I postulated that we adopted the idea of "cause" for practical reasons. We have an interest in making certain propositions true or false (that which is the objects of our desires). We invented the idea of "cause" to identify those things, the manipulating of which, can bring about or avoid that which we desire or towards which we have an aversion.

Problem: Causes (and effects) would exist even if we did not exist with our desires to identify them. If I make causes dependent on our desires then, in the absence of our desires, there would be no causes. Yet, this conclusion seems to be false. This gives us reason to reject the original assumption.

Logic can be so annoying sometimes.

David Lewis distinguishes between 'causation' and 'explanation'. He understands explanation as being dependent on us. Indeed, the explanation of something is the cause that we care about. So, the presence of oxygen in the air may be a part of the cause of the house burning down, but it is not a part of the cause that we care about (since we are not going to start building houses without oxygen). The cause that we care about (the short circuit, the stove set on high and the owner falling asleep, the arsonist) is what 'explains' the fire. It is through this concept of explanation that we can assign moral responsibility.

However, there is still this 'cause' that we may or may not have reason to care about. That is 'causation' itself - what the philosophers are interested in.

This leads to a potential source of confusion.

If there are causes that we care about, then there is at least a possibility of causes that we do not care about.

This leads to a problem since one of the ways we evaluate theories of causation is by testing them against our linguistic intuitions. Somebody proposes a theory of causation, we imagine how it would work in specific instances, and we check whether we would, intuitively, call that a cause or not.

For example, Tom places a bomb that would kill Susan if it goes off. Pete notices the bomb and disarms it. Pete, we may say, saved Susan's life in that if Pete had not disarmed the bomb, then Susan would have been blown up. Fortunately, Pete had a pair of wirecutters in his pocket because he had been working on some home repairs. If Pete had not put the wire cutters in his pocket, he would not have been able to save Susan's life. So, we can say that one of the causes of Susan's life being spared was Pete's having a pair of wirecutters which, in turn, was caused by his doing home repairs.

However, it is also the case that if Tom had not placed the bomb, that Pete would not have been able to save Susan's life. So, Pete's saving Susan's life was caused, in part, by Tom placing a bomb. So, do we credit Tom with placing the bomb in virtue of the fact that, "If you had not placed the bomb, then Pete would not have been able to save Susan's life."

That seems odd, right?

However, we must distinguish between the causes and explanations. Tom's placing the bomb may have caused the event that resulted in Pete's saving Susan's life. However, Tom's placing the bomb did not save Susan's life. This is because Tom's placing a bomb, though a part of the cause, is not a part of the cause that we care about. So, it is not a part of the 'explanation' for how Susan's life was saved. Tom gets no moral credit.

So, we are going to need to keep this distinction between 'causation' and 'explanation' in mind as we look at the philosophy of causation.

And note that what I wrote yesterday may be more of a theory of 'explanation' than a theory of 'causation'.

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