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The Ontology of Causation: A Carnapian-Pragmatist Approach

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Metaphysicians of causation have long debated the existence of primitive causal modalities (e.g., powers), with reductionists and realists taking opposing stances. However, little attention has been given to the legitimacy of the metaphysical question itself, despite our longstanding awareness of Rudolf Carnap’s critique of metaphysics. This article develops a (broadly) Carnapian-pragmatist approach to causation as an alternative to existing metaphysical approaches. Within this pragmatist approach, metaphysical questions about causation are reinterpreted as practical questions about the choice of causal frameworks. To motivate and justify this new approach, I argue that, in emphasizing the priority of ontology over methodology, metaphysical approaches to causation fail to adequately capture the interplay between causal ontology and causal methodology in scientific practice. In contrast, the Carnapian approach provides a more appealing alternative that emphasizes the mutual dependence and ‘balance’ between the two in an ongoing process of scientific inquiry. I use the recent controversy over ‘What counts as a cause’ in statistical causal inference as a case study to demonstrate how the Carnapian approach can help us better understand the role of ontological issues in methodological practices.

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  1. Danks (2015) and Ludwig (2016) can be interpreted as taking (broadly construed) Carnapian approaches to scientific ontology. Antoniou (2021) defends a Carnapian pragmatist approach to the ontology of scientific models. Lauer (2022) proposes a pragmatic approach to social ontology that seems to be Carnapian in spirit.

  2. Fischer (2023) develops a Carnapian approach to the ontology of actual causation which emphasizes the role of goals and context in improving or explicating our concept of actual causation. In addition, broadly pragmatist approaches to causation can be found in Eagle (2007), Hitchcock (2012), Price (2001; 2007), and Woodward (2014; 2015; 2017; 2021).

  3. At the end of the paper, Carnap (1956, 221) says, “[t]o decree dogmatic prohibitions of certain linguistic forms instead of testing them by their success or failure in practical use […] is positively harmful because it may obstruct scientific progress”.

  4. I thank two anonymous reviewers for suggesting this important clarification. My distinction here draws inspiration from Woodward’s (2015, 3578–3579) distinction between ontology1 and ontology2. Our distinctions are essentially the same except for one important difference: my ontologyC subsumes Woodward’s narrower notion of ontology1. An ‘ontology1’ (e.g., a gene ontology) refers to a system of ‘basic’ entities, properties, and structures, together with ways of classifying them, in a particular scientific domain. OntologyC, in contrast, encompasses any kind of ontological commitments, classifications, frameworks, and inquiries in science or philosophy that are Carnapian in nature.

  5. In this paper, ‘causal realism’ refers specifically to a metaphysically inflationary thesis about causation. Therefore, my rejection of causal realism doesn’t imply that causation cannot be ‘real’ in some deflationary sense.

  6. I agree with Cartwright (1989; esp., 2007) on many things she has said about causation; nevertheless, I think Cartwright and Pemberton (2013) have gone too far in making unnecessary metaphysical commitments to Aristotelian powers. I will say more about this in Sect. 4.

  7. Readers may be interested in what Carnap himself thinks about the ontology of causation. Unfortunately, he was somewhat equivocal on this. On the one hand, Carnap (1966, 201) was sympathetic to reductionism: “A statement about a causal relation […] describes an observed regularity of nature, nothing more.” Therefore, it seems that here, even Carnap failed to resist the temptation to make a metaphysical (i.e., a Humean) claim about causation. On the other hand, Carnap also acknowledged that “I do not deny the possibility of introducing a necessity concept, provided it is not a metaphysical concept but is a concept within the logic of [causal] modalities” Carnap (1966, 208). The idea expressed in this latter quote is clearly a Carnapian one: if a framework needs to postulate causal necessities to fulfill our goals, we are justified to admit them to our ontologyC.

  8. Here ‘truth’ is understood in terms of some sort of correspondence relation between assertions and (some portion of) external reality. I assume that causal realists, and more generally speaking, metaphysical realists, typically adopt a correspondence theory of truth which says that truth consists in some kind of correspondence between statements/propositions/frameworks and external reality (see David 2022).

  9. According to Carnap (1962, 3), “explication consists in transforming a given more or less inexact concept into an exact one.” See also Fischer (2023) for how Carnapian explications work in the context of actual causation.

  10. A similar point has also been made by Woodward (2007, 90): “Relative to a specification of system and a level of description or graining for it […] one fixes the variables one is talking about, it is [an] ‘objective’ matter whether and how [the variables] are causally related”, and by Eagle (2007, 167): “even if the variable and their ranges are chosen for pragmatic and context-sensitive reasons, the truth of the resulting counterfactuals will be a perfectly objective feature of those variables.”

  11. What is this infrastructure? Weinberger et al. (2023, 4) write: “there are certain generic features of our world that license and support the application of causal thinking and inferences to causal conclusions […] (i) some variables are statistically independent of others […] (ii) interventions, in the sense of unconfounded manipulations, are often possible […] (iii) the macroscopic, coarse-grained behavior of many systems is largely independent of variations in their microscopic realizing details […]”.

  12. Fischer (2023) reaches a similar conclusion about frameworks of actual causation.

  13. Hitchcock (2007, 200) helpfully identifies “a plurality of causal pluralisms”; see references therein.

  14. Although I am not opposed to Cartwright’s thesis of causal pluralism, I argue in Sect. 4.1 that her thesis about causal diversity does not square well with Cartwright and Pemberton’s (2013) desire for a unified causal ontologyM.

  15. Another popular statistical causal inference framework is the potential-outcomes framework (also known as ‘the Rubin Causal Model’; see Rubin 1974; Holland 1986), which is discussed in Sect. 4.3.

  16. I don’t have the space to elaborate on how the backdoor criterion works, but see Pearl (2009, 79–80) and Pearl et al. (2016, 61–64) for detailed explanations.

  17. An analogous problem is also noted in Danks (2015). Danks shows that depending on our goals, we may need different models with incompatible ontological commitments even about the same target system.

  18. In a broadly Quinean spirit, Schurz and Gebharter (2016, 1073) argue that causation is a “theoretical concept” explicated by “axioms” of the “theory” of causal Bayes nets (aka SCMs). My project and theirs share important common grounds, but I disagree that the SCM framework alone is sufficient to explicate the concept (or rather concepts) of causation. In making this claim, they seem to assume that SCMs can capture everything important about causation and that it is the single best causal framework we have. There are good reasons to doubt these assumptions. First, the framework of SCM is merely concerned with the ‘thin’ concept of causation. But there are plenty of ‘thick’ causal concepts used in the sciences that the formalism simply cannot capture (cf. Cartwright 2007). For example, in classical mechanics, the detailed dynamics of a system’s evolution needs to be described using Hamiltonian equations which we do not find in SCMs. Additionally, axioms of SCMs presuppose idealized assumptions (such as modularity) that may be violated in biological sciences. Moreover, even in domains where SCMs plays a significant role, causal notions used there are often richer and messier than what the axioms of SCMs can tell us. For example, actual interventions conducted in clinical trials are much more complicated than the kind of atomic or ideal interventions assumed in the SCM framework. Additionally, the formalism of SCM does not capture other peripheral causal notions like invariance, proportionality, and stability that play an indispensable role in causal inference practice.

  19. I am not the only one who is skeptical about the possibility of having conclusive arguments against the metaphysician. Woodward (2017, 193), for example, found that “putting everything into an ordinary ‘linear’ argument [against the metaphysician] was impossible”; so, he organized his article as an imaginary dialogue with ‘Professor Metafisico’.

  20. E.g., consider downward causation in science (e.g., biology). The existence of downward causation is often accepted without questioning by biologists due to the evident usefulness of this ontological postulate; what biologists are interested in are typically internal questions about downward causation. Metaphysicians, however, are interested in the following metaphysical question: ‘Is there really downward causation?’ Surprisingly, the metaphysician Kim (1993) has ‘compellingly’ argued—in the sense that the premises of the argument are widely accepted among metaphysicians—that downward causation is impossible! This sharp discontinuity between ontological postulations in scientific practice and our metaphysics seems baffling and counterintuitive, to say the least.

  21. I am not saying it is incoherent to be a pragmatist Aristotelian, but I doubt that anyone who are sympathetic to a pragmatist meta-ontologyC would label themselves an Aristotelian without adding any caveat.

  22. Cartwright (2007, 19; emphasis added) writes: “We think of causation as a single monolithic concept. But that is a mistake […] there is no single thing of much detail that [causal laws] all have in common, something they share that makes them all causal laws.”

  23. “The explicatum is to be similar to the explicandum in such a way that, in most cases in which the explicandum has been so far used, the explicatum can be used (Cartwright 2007, 7)”.

  24. The question, especially of whether attributes or characteristics should be seen as causes in causal inference, has stimulated much debate in both philosophy and science (Holland 2003; Woodward 2003; 2016; Greiner and Rubin 2011; Sen and Wasow 2016). My discussion below will unavoidably be brief and oversimplified.

  25. Note that you can of course change these attributes indirectly by assigning treatments to an individual. For example, you can improve a student’s scholastic performance by helping them with their homework. But this is not the same thing as assigning high scholastic performance as a treatment to that student. What is assigned as treatment here is homework help, not high scholastic performance.


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I am grateful to Wayne Myrvold and two anonymous reviewers for their invaluable feedback on earlier versions of this paper. I also thank Xiuyuan An, Weixin Cai, Eric Desjardins, Yousuf Hasan, Yichen Luo, Zihan Qu, Shuguo Tang and Shimin Zhao for their helpful comments.

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Dong, Z. The Ontology of Causation: A Carnapian-Pragmatist Approach. J Gen Philos Sci (2024).

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