Friday, March 16, 2018

Philosophers' Communication Problem - Causation

Philosophers seem to have a pathological dislike of having their claims be comprehensible to real people.

I am going to add “cause” to my list of examples. Here, "cause" joins terms such as “realism” and “anti-realism”, and “objective” and “subjective”, as terms that philosophers use in a way that is destined to confuse more people than it helps.

I mentioned in an earlier post that the Philosopher David Lewis distinguishes “causation” from “explanation”.

He defines “causation” as that which occurs in nature independent of intelligent thought. For example, a collision between a Mars-sized planetoids and an early Earth caused the moon to form.

Explanation, he claims, applies to what Humans do as we look for “the cause” of accidents, wars, famines, good harvests, and economic prosperity.

The problem is that what Lewis calls “explanation”, the rest of the world calls “cause”. The term “explanation” can be used to talk about a relationship between cause and effect. However, when we ask for an explanation we are usually asking for a description. For example, “Explain the meaning of ‘We the People” as it appears in the Constitution", or, "Explain the process for determining the velocity of an unladen sparrow."

Lewis' application of terms to the issue of causation would be like deciding to use the word “ball” to refer to a tendency to bounce off solid objects and using the term “red” for the spherical object thrown against solid objects to demonstrate its 'ball'. We already have perfectly good English terms for these things: ‘ball’ = elasticity and ‘red’ = ball. The rest of the world would find what this person says a lot easier to understand if he - and those who commented on his work, would simply use the terms in their standard English way.

We invented (and are continuing to modify) language language primarily to use as a tool for realizing our desires. It would only make sense that our language would have a convenient way to refer to, "that which we can manipulate that will help us to realize that which is important to us." The word we use is “cause” as in “the cause” or “a cause”. Since knowing what we can manipulate in order to realize what we desire is useful to us, I suspect that we will continue to use the word 'cause' primarily in this way.

Of course, we have the capacity to recognize that there are relationships between one state of affairs and another in the sense that, "If we did have an interest in realizing or preventing the relation of the effect, we would manipulate the cause." Conequently, we have a way of applying this term for what we have both the ability and a motive to manipulate to that which we may only hypothetically want to manipulate. Consequently, even though no person was around to witness the formation of a moon, we can still ask and answer the question, "If we wanted to create a moon, what would we have focused our attention on that could have realized the formation of a moon?" We can ask the same question concerning the extinction of the dinosaurs, the formation of the milky way galaxy, the death of a star, or the fact that ice floats on water.

So, we do have an expanded sense of the word 'cause' that goes beyond what we actually care about. However, it is built on a concept of 'cause' that is concerned with realizing what we do, in fact, care about.

The bulk of philosophical discussion seems to be focused on this expanded concept of 'cause'. However, discussions keep getting derailed by linguistic intuitions concerning how we would actually use the word 'cause' - and those intuitions cannot be divorced from actual or hypothetical human desires.

So, it seems, not only are these philosophers good at confusing us, they are just as good at confusing each other.

I intend to use the word 'cause' to refer to 'that which we can manipulate in order to realize that which we desire or to prevent the realization of that to which we have aversions." I will sometimes extend this usage to ask about things that would have been good objects of manipulation if we had wanted to realize or prevent some state of affairs.

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