Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pragmatic Causation

Yesterday, I mentioned that philosophers distinguish between the causation that occurs when there are no people (e.g., the meteor that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs), and the causation that people are interested in (whether Russian meddling was responsible for Trump being elected President).

On the surface, they seem quite similar.

However, when we look at the first type of cause, we tend to include things that people are not actually interested in. In earlier posts I mentioned the case of saying that the house fire was caused by the existence of oxygen in the room. This is true in the metaphysical-causal sense in that if there had been no oxygen in the room there would have been no fire. However, this is not the cause we are interested in. Consequently, it is not the moral/responsible cause of the fire.

We could also say that building the house itself caused the fire. If the house had never been built, it never would have caught fire. Yet, again, this is not the type of cause we are interested in. Thus, though building the house was, in one sense, the cause of it burning down, it was neither the cause in the moral/responsible sense or in the useful sense.

In considering this broader sense of cause, I must say that I have no interest in the causes that people generally have no reason to be interested in. This means that I find it hard to find the motivation to investigate this type of cause other than the need to create a paper for class and turn it in.

Yet, I am drawn to the thesis that this type of cause would not even exist except that people have a need and a use for a more pragmatic sense of "cause".

If we look at cause through a pragmatic lens, it seems to me to take something of the form, "things like A tend to cause things like B" means "if you want to control things like B, then you should look for ways to control things like A."

Of course, "wanting to control things like B" comes from the motivation to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of our desires are true.

One of the things I have noticed about pragmatic causation is . . .

In the general discussion of causation, people like to link specific causes to specific events. Whereas in pragmatic causation, people link "things like the cause" to "things like the effect". They are more general. While we may look at the cause of the Great Depression, we are actually more interested in the kinds of things that have effects like that of the Great Depression. When we look for the cause of an automobile accident we are looking for the types of things that tend to cause things like automobile accidents.

We do this because our interest in avoiding economic depressions and automobile accidents cause us to wonder what we can do - what actions we can take - to prevent economic depressions and automobile accidents. This causes us to look for types of causes that we can act on - that we can influence - in our quest to manipulate effects.

Even causes that we seem to be able to do nothing about are susceptible to pragmatic consideration. When we look for the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs we are looking for things the likes of which can bring about a mass extinction. In finding that "the cause" is an asteroid impact, we learn that if we wish to avoid our own mass extinction, we should look for the possibility of an asteroid impact. If the cause of the dinosaur extinction was disease, it causes us to look for the possibility of preventing a human extinction by our study of diseases.

In other words, we are looking to control something that is like the asteroid impact or pathogen that could have an effect that is something like the extinction of the dinosaurs - namely, human extinction.

Our interest in looking for the cause of the automobile accident is to find out whether there is "something like that which caused the accident that we can act on or manipulate" which can be the cause of "something like that accident." This way, we can act on that which seems to be the cause of the accident (e.g., drunk driving) in order to reduce that type of effect (automobile accidents).

This, to me, simply seems to be a more sensible concept of causation.

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