Pre-emption cases may support, not undermine, the counterfactual theory of causation

Abstract

Pre-emption cases have been taken by almost everyone to imply the unviability of the simple counterfactual theory of causation. Yet there is ample motivation from scientific practice to endorse a simple version of the theory if we can. There is a way in which a simple counterfactual theory, at least if understood contrastively, can be supported even while acknowledging that intuition goes firmly against it in pre-emption cases—or rather, only in some of those cases. For I present several new pre-emption cases in which causal intuition does not go against the counterfactual theory, a fact that has been verified experimentally. I suggest an account of framing effects that can square the circle. Crucially, this account offers hope of theoretical salvation—but only to the counterfactual theory of causation, not to others. Again, there is (admittedly only preliminary) experimental support for this account.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In order to reach this result, it will be necessary to interpret the counterfactual theory contrastively, as will become apparent below.

  2. 2.

    Following others, I will use ‘causal judgment’ and ‘causal intuition’ interchangeably.

  3. 3.

    The causal modeling literature works with a probabilistic version of difference-making. In this paper, following the relevant metaphysics literature, I concentrate on the deterministic case. But, as discussed below (Sect. 7), I think an approach analogous to this paper’s can be profitably applied to the probabilistic case too. Also, the causal modeling literature, like many methods in social science, operates at the type level, whereas the most discussed pre-emption cases in the metaphysics literature have been at the token level. But the counterfactual account, if accepted, should apply to token and type levels alike. Accordingly, its utility at the type level motivates defending it at the token level, and in turn defending it at the token level is necessary to defending it at the type level.

  4. 4.

    Some work has questioned whether even causes so understood really do license interventions in the way claimed, given various complexities of implementation and extrapolation. The debate continues (Cartwright 2007; Pearl 2010). But that debate concerns only whether to insist on a more local or contextualized understanding of causal knowledge; it does not question causation as difference-making.

  5. 5.

    A version of this example was first put forward in McDermott (1995) and Collins (2000).

  6. 6.

    Others have also noted the desirability of an account of framing effects, although coming from a different perspective than this paper’s (Collins et al. 2004, p. 37; Hitchcock 2006, p. 428). Paul comments: “Philosophy … involves the construction of models and takes ordinary judgments to be constraints on such models, and hence needs to attend to the cognitive science of ordinary judgments” (2010, p. 475). Sosa (2007, pp. 99–107) highlights the need for an error theory to explain divergent intuitions about individual cases. True, strictly speaking in the pre-emption experiments in the text the intuitive response in each particular case is uncontroversial; rather, the divergence is between cases. But this paper’s analysis is in the spirit of Sosa’s (and Paul’s) suggestions.

  7. 7.

    To be sure, other theories too could use framing effects to explain away the judgment reversals in pre-emption cases. But, unlike for the counterfactual theorist, that would still leave them having to solve the additional problem cases specific to them.

  8. 8.

    I thank an anonymous referee for highlighting this possibility.

  9. 9.

    Occasionally, this possibility is briefly mentioned or implied, but not pursued (e.g. Blanchard and Schaffer 2017, pp. 197–198). Blanchard and Schaffer do use psychological theory to disregard some causal judgments in cases of causal selection.

  10. 10.

    I thank an anonymous referee for highlighting this possibility.

  11. 11.

    Arguably, a simple counterfactual theory does usefully illuminate the analysis of harm (Northcott 2015).

  12. 12.

    One drawback of the neuron diagrams popular in the causation literature since Lewis is that they abstract away from such details of presentation and so hide the importance of framing effects.

  13. 13.

    This might be conjoined with other heuristics, based around factors such as those to be mentioned in the text shortly. For instance, in Meteorites the first rock may be picked out in preference to the second because only it had physical contact with the window, conjoined with the fact that such physical contact would indeed cause the window to shatter in normal non-overdetermination circumstances.

  14. 14.

    The experimental results themselves are also consistent with it being the latter, rather than former, halves of the pairs that are misleading us. This second interpretation would imply that the illusions are our causal judgments in Baseball Fielder, Hotel Coupon, War, and Soccer rather than in Meteorites. But, as the paper as a whole argues, that interpretation would not cohere with any satisfactory wider metaphysical account – so, since the experimental results leave us free to reject it, we should do so.

  15. 15.

    The teleological context factor in the (Northcott 2011) experiments does incorporate a functional norm to some degree, although it did not prove to be especially influential.

  16. 16.

    Twardy and Korb (2011) and Fenton-Glynn (2017) ingeniously extend to the probabilistic case the ‘actual causation’ approach derived from structural equations modeling. As discussed in Sect. 5, that approach deviates from this paper’s by seeking to accommodate rather than explain away our various causal judgments in the relevant cases.

  17. 17.

    One loose end from Northcott (2010) was that it offered no treatment of pre-emption cases. In this way, the present paper is complementary to it.

  18. 18.

    The view arguably dates at least to Aristotle. Notable recent advocates include Harré and Madden (1975), Cartwright (1989), Heil (2003) and Bird (2007).

  19. 19.

    Of course, other theoretical options are available here besides powers and Humeanism, such as primitivism about subjunctive facts (Lange 2009) or a pragmatism-inspired quietism about the entire issue (Price 2011). This paper is neutral about these too.

  20. 20.

    Note that, as we saw in Sect. 5, this approach so far gives no explanation of why our judgment—i.e. what it calls ‘actual causation’—reverses between different pre-emption cases, sometimes coinciding with counterfactual dependence and other times not.

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Acknowledgements

I thank Jonathan Livengood, Joshua Knobe and others for extensive help in running the relevant experiments. I thank two anonymous referees for helpful feedback. For earlier feedback I also thank anonymous referees from other journals, plus audiences at: University of California San Diego, Saint Louis University, University of Kansas, Society for Exact Philosophy, University of Missouri-Saint Louis, Birkbeck College, and University of Cambridge.

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Correspondence to Robert Northcott.

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Northcott, R. Pre-emption cases may support, not undermine, the counterfactual theory of causation. Synthese 198, 537–555 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-02038-z

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Keywords

  • Causation
  • Counterfactuals
  • Pre-emption
  • Experiments
  • Psychology
  • Error theory