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Causality Reunified


Hall has recently argued that there are two concepts of causality, picking out two different kinds of causal relation. McGrath, and Hitchcock and Knobe, have recently argued that the facts about causality depend on what counts as a “default” or “normal” state, or even on the moral facts. In the light of these claims you might be tempted to agree with Skyrms that causal relations constitute, metaphysically speaking, an “amiable jumble”, or with Cartwright that ‘causation’, though a single word, encompasses many different kinds of things. This paper argues, drawing on the author’s recent work on explanation, that the evidence adduced in support of causal pluralism can be accommodated easily by a unified theory of causality—a theory according to which all singular causal claims concern the same fundamental causal network.

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  1. 1.

    In some cases, as Cartwright points out, the conflict between multiple criteria may fall short of outright disagreement: one criterion may determine that a relation is causal, while the preconditions for the application of another may not obtain—so that the second, though it does not determinately disagree with the judgments of the first, fails to agree.

  2. 2.

    Hall calls the second a dependence relation rather than a difference-making relation, but to my ear “dependence” is too broad; “difference-making” more precisely captures what Hall has in mind.

  3. 3.

    An alternative approach is to interpret the apparent influence of practical interests on causal facts as due rather to some more objective factor, such as the counterfactual robustness of the events or states of affairs in question (Franklin-Hall, forthcoming). Another is Schaffer’s (2005) proposal that the causal relata are richer than we have supposed—they are event contrasts rather than mere events—and that the role of context is to fix the implicit aspects of these relata, rather than to determine whether between any two such relata a relation of causation holds.

  4. 4.

    Hitchcock and Knobe prefer the manipulationist version of the counterfactual account: to be a prima facie cause, an event must be such that the putative effect counterfactually depends on the event even when all causal factors (“variables”) not on the putative causal path are held to their actual values. (Furthermore, though less important, the test for counterfactual dependence stipulates that the counterfactual non-occurrence of the event in question is due to an “intervention” in the manipulationist’s proprietary sense.) Because the details make no difference to the argument, the main text ignores this significant difference between Hitchcock and Knobe’s account and McGrath’s account.

  5. 5.

    A somewhat more sophisticated notion of transitivity is needed to deal with continuous processes, including those in Newtonian physics, but this is not the place for such complications.

  6. 6.

    A factor influences a high-level event if it influences one or more constituents of the concrete event that realizes the high-level event (Strevens 2008, §3.23).

  7. 7.

    They are not all the difference-makers, indeed, not even all the difference-makers in the portion of the web with which you began. To find the complete set of difference-makers, you must apply the criterion to every possible chunk of the web.

  8. 8.

    To use the word “significant” is to cheat a little. Better to specify precisely the net force on the rock from elsewhere without specifying its sources. The outcome will be the same.

  9. 9.

    One way to make the entailment non-causal is to make it merely logical—by, for example, replacing all premises with a single premise saying “The vase broke”.

  10. 10.

    Despite my characterization—for expository purposes—of the relevant space as a similarity space in the previous paragraph, a topological structure is sufficient to define contiguity and therefore cohesion; thus, a similarity metric is not required. There need not be a fact of the matter, then, as to the degree of similarity between two different causal processes. A notion of a “minimal physical change” is enough.

  11. 11.

    On the sufficiency of counterfactual dependence for causal difference-making, see Strevens (2008) §3.81.

  12. 12.

    Kairetic causal difference-making is, unlike counterfactual dependence, transitive. The thesis of transitivity is therefore true of both varieties of causal relation. Problem: the relation asserted by causal claims is widely thought not to be transitive. The resolution of this problem is given in Strevens (2008), §6.5.

  13. 13.

    Perhaps it is better to regard causal claims that cite frameworked factors not as false but as semantically defective in some other way, like claims with false presuppositions. This is an important issue for the frameworker, but I do not have the space to treat it here.

  14. 14.

    The conversation might continue: “So they died because Gödel in particular did not feed them?” “Not because of Gödel in particular; because of everyone’s failure to feed them.”

  15. 15.

    A reader asks: if a fact helps to determine the truth of a causal claim, is it not thereby causal? Answer: no. Consider the causal claim “The vase was broken by the rock if Goldbach’s conjecture is true, or by the elephant otherwise”. The truth of the claim hinges in part on the facts about Goldbach’s conjecture, but these are in no interesting sense causal facts.


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For valuable comments, thanks to the anonymous referees and to Laura Franklin-Hall, who never fails to feed the fish.

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Correspondence to Michael Strevens.

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Strevens, M. Causality Reunified. Erkenn 78, 299–320 (2013).

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  • Causal Influence
  • Causal Claim
  • Counterfactual Dependence
  • Concrete Event
  • Causal Reality