Biology & Philosophy

, 34:1 | Cite as

On Calcott’s permissive and instructive cause distinction

  • Pierrick BourratEmail author


I argue that Calcott (in Biol Philos 32(4):481–505, Calcott 2017) mischaracterizes in an important way the notion of causal specificity proposed by Woodward (in Biol Philos 25(3):287–318, Woodward 2010). This leads him to (1) rely too heavily on one single aspect of Woodward’s analysis on causal specificity; (2) propose an information-theoretic measure he calls ‘precision’ which is partly redundant with, but less general than one of the dimensions in Woodward’s analysis of specificity, without acknowledging Woodward’s analysis; and (3) claim that comparing the specificities of two or more causes under what he calls a competitive analysis of causes, does not permit to capture the distinction between permissive and instructive causes. After having restated Woodward’s analysis of causal specificity, I present an information-theoretic measure (variation of causal information) which, although related to Calcott’s measure, is more general than his and corresponds to the notion of specificity he missed in Woodward's analysis. I then show how this measure can be used, together with mutual causal information (which captures another dimension of specificity in Woodward’s analysis), to distinguish permissive from instructive causes in a competitive analysis of causes.


Causation Interventionist account Causal specificity Information theory Mutual information Variation of information 



I am thankful to the Theory and Method in Biosciences group at the University of Sydney, two anonymous reviewers, Kate Lynch, and Michael Weisberg who provided useful feedback on previous versions of this manuscript. I am more particularly thankful to Arnaud Pocheville who introduced me to information theory and discussed it at length with me, and Stefan Gawronski who proofread the final manuscript. This research was supported by a Macquarie University Research Fellowship and a Large Grant from the John Templeton Foundation (Grant ID 60811).


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyMacquarie UniversityNorth RydeAustralia
  2. 2.Department of Philosophy & Charles Perkins CentreThe University of SydneyCamperdownAustralia

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