Minds and Machines

, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 61-78

First online:

Explaining Disease: Correlations, Causes, and Mechanisms

  • Paul ThagardAffiliated withPhilosophy Department, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario

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Why do people get sick? I argue that a disease explanation is best thought of as causal network instantiation, where a causal network describes the interrelations among multiple factors, and instantiation consists of observational or hypothetical assignment of factors to the patient whose disease is being explained. This paper first discusses inference from correlation to causation, integrating recent psychological discussions of causal reasoning with epidemiological approaches to understanding disease causation, particularly concerning ulcers and lung cancer. It then shows how causal mechanisms represented by causal networks can contribute to reasoning involving correlation and causation. The understanding of causation and causal mechanisms provides the basis for a presentation of the causal network instantiation model of medical explanation.

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