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A principled approach to defining actual causation


DOI: 10.1007/s11229-016-1247-1

Cite this article as:
Beckers, S. & Vennekens, J. Synthese (2016). doi:10.1007/s11229-016-1247-1


In this paper we present a new proposal for defining actual causation, i.e., the problem of deciding if one event caused another. We do so within the popular counterfactual tradition initiated by Lewis, which is characterised by attributing a fundamental role to counterfactual dependence. Unlike the currently prominent definitions, our approach proceeds from the ground up: we start from basic principles, and construct a definition of causation that satisfies them. We define the concepts of counterfactual dependence and production, and put forward principles such that dependence is an unnecessary but sufficient condition for causation, whereas production is an insufficient but necessary condition. The resulting definition of causation is a suitable compromise between dependence and production. Every principle is introduced by means of a paradigmatic example of causation. We illustrate some of the benefits of our approach with two examples that have spelled trouble for other accounts. We make all of this formally precise using structural equations, which we extend with a timing over all events.


Actual causation Counterfactual dependence Production Structural equations 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Computer ScienceCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  2. 2.Faculty of Engineering TechnologyUniversity of LeuvenLeuvenBelgium

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