Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Causation as Folk Science

I've found an interesting article on the role of causality in science written by John D. Norton (University of Pittsburgh). The abstract and conclusion, cited below, provide a good summary of his position. It seems to support my understanding that debates about the metaphysics of causation have largely given way to a pragmatism which is not at all incompatible with dependent origination. Indeed it is interesting to see that Norton talks about "recovering" causation from ontological inconclusiveness much as dependent origination "recovers" conventional reality from the same.

The full text is available at http://www.philosophersimprint.org/003004/

I deny that the world is fundamentally causal, deriving the skepticism on non-Humean grounds from our enduring failures to find a contingent, universal principle of causality that holds true of our science. I explain the prevalence and fertility of causal notions in science by arguing that a causal character for many sciences can be recovered, when they are restricted to appropriately hospitable domains. There they conform to a loose collection of causal notions that form a folk science of causation. This recovery of causation exploits the same generative power of reduction relations that allows us to recover gravity as a force from Einstein's general relativity and heat as a conserved fluid, the caloric, from modern thermal physics, when each theory is restricted to appropriate domains. Causes are real in science to the same degree as caloric and gravitational forces.

(John D. Norton, Causation as Folk Science, 2003, Ch.1)

On the one hand, causes play no fundamental role in our mature science. Those sciences are not manifestly about causation and they harbor no universally valid principle of causality. On the other, the actual practice of science is thoroughly permeated with causal talk: science is often glossed as the search for causes; and poor science or superstition is condemned because of its supposed failure to conform to a vaguely specified principle of causality. I have argued that we can have causes in the world of science in same way as we can retain the caloric. There is no caloric in the world; heat is not a material substance. However in many circumstances heat behaves just as if it were a material fluid and it can be very useful to think of heat this way. It is the same with cause and effect. At a fundamental level, there are no causes and effects in science and no overarching principle of causality. However in appropriately restricted domains our science tells us that the world behaves just as if it conformed to the sort of folk theory of causation outlined above. Finally I have suggested that we need not expect the exact same notion of cause to be invoked in each of these many domains. The proliferation of different account of the nature of causation suggests that there might be no single notion of causation, so that the best single account we can have is a loose folk theory, not all of whose elements will be accepted in every application.

(ibid, Ch.7)


Psybertron said...

I like the furrrow you're ploughing Paul, in this sequence of posts.

I think the "behaves as if" concept in there is going to be useful in bottoming out pragmatic causation. (I also think recovery of pragmatism, is very much aligned to your earlier comments about the "aontic" buddhist world-view being not "essentially" a metaphysics, except of course for all practical purposes.)

Sam and I have picked up on a number of scientific causal metaphors that introduce anthropomorphism - or some other sense of active teleological behaviour to "explain" dependencies of events.

How "genes" and "memes" behave is a case in point ....
They "behave as if" they are attempting to achieve things.

(PS I'd be realy interested if you commented on some modern scientists grappling with causation and explanation - like Deutsch - and comparing Chalmers views on "supervenience" with this "dependent arising" thread.)

Paul Turner said...

Thanks for the pointers towards Deutsch and Chalmers. Supervenience is definitely on my list of things to look into. Can you recommend any books or articles in particular?

Psybertron said...

Hi Paul,

David Deutsch I was thinking of "The Fabric of Reality"

David Chalmers "The Conscious Mind"

As to specific chapters - I'm stuck at the moment - my world is in boxes as we prepare for our US move.


Bhakti Madhava Puri said...

Thank you for your thoughtful posts on the historical development of the notion of causality. I am interested in that but confused by your attempt to eliminate cause and replace it with relation.

It seems that in order to have a relation there needs be relata. If you consider a simple relation like "A is bigger than B" then how does one understand the relation "bigger" without the relata?

Even if we consider "bigger" a relation, this seems no different than the essentialist notion of a concept - i.e. "bigger" as an ideal judgement that applies to a reality.

Concerning the unreality of causality - i.e. as something we never find in reality, I would say that it is merely due to the fact that 'cause' is a rational judgement. By this I mean that cause is reason itself, just as when we give a reason for something by saying "be-cause." We merely posit it as being objective, but certainly it will not be found as such among real things.

If I may present you with a challenge: it sees to me you may ignore essence, but you can't thereby eliminate it, for whatever you postulate or posit is essentially the activity of thinking, which is invisible or ideal in the whole process of reality-determining - dare we say reality-making.