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What Causally Insensitive Events Tell us About Overdetermination


Some philosophers dismiss putative cases of causal overdetermination as joint causation underdescribed. In this paper I identify a special kind of causal overdetermination that cannot be reduced to joint causation, and use it to shed light on other kinds of redundant causation. Some effects are insensitive to the additive force of multiple causes. They are to be contrasted with sensitive effects, which physically and counterfactually vary according to the number and sorts of causes they have. I argue that sensitive effects are symptoms of joint causation; insensitive effects are symptoms of overdetermination. Insensitive effects resulting from multiple causes cannot be classified as “joint causation underdescribed,” but only as overdetermination. Finally, I suggest that cases of “trumping preemption” should be understood as cases of overdetermination with insensitive effects, and that Lewis’ “influence” account of causation cannot handle these cases.

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  1. Those who hold that overdetermination is prevalent include Schaffer (2003), Sider (2003), and Paul (2007).

  2. For an early example of this reasoning, see Bunzl (1979).

  3. See Lewis (1986)

  4. See Kim (1976)

  5. This view stands in contrast to Davidson (2001), who holds that events are individuated by the spacetime regions that they occupy.

  6. There is at least one ordered triple that is straightforwardly overdetermined: the window shattering, coarsely described. For example, both Billy’s and Suzy’s rocks are individually sufficient to cause the occurrence of triple < window, shattering, 2:30 pm>. But Kimian events are essentially fine-grained, and no two rocks will cause exactly the same group of ordered triples that one rock would cause. Thanks to an astute referee for this point.

  7. The sounding of the alarm is an acoustic event that depends on a particular arrangement of particles.

  8. There are many different kinds of overdetermination, including overdetermination of effects by mental and physical properties implied by nonreductive physicalism, to which this analysis might not apply. Nonreductive physicalists generally hold that mental properties do not contribute physical force or additive energy to a mentally caused outcome. In Bernstein (ms), I argue that this commitment yields an unsatisfactory picture of mental causation. Either the nonreductive physicalist must give an account of why mentally caused outcomes are insensitive effects, or give an account of the exact causal contribution of the mental cause. This argument generalizes to overdetermination of the macro level by the micro level (as in Merricks 2007).

  9. I remain neutral on what the causal relata are. They could be property instances, facts, or events.

  10. It is unclear exactly what it is for a causal process to “run to completion”. For discussions of various notions of this, see Bernstein (2014), Hall and Paul (2013) and Dowe (2000).

  11. Note that one need not hold that neuron diagrams capture all of the relevant facts of every case of causation in order to take this claim on board. A neuron diagram captures the time at which each cause occurs, the completion of each causal process, and the occurrence of the outcome—most of the relevant information relating to the distinction between joint causation and overdetermination. Neuron diagrams capture causal contribution, but not distinctions between partial and full causal contributors. This missing piece—whether each cause is partial or full—is determined in relation to the sensitivity of the effect.

  12. For simplicity, I am examining only one dimension of sensitivity. For example, one could have an alarm that changes volume based on the number of points of contact with the window, and pitch based on the force of shattering.

  13. Though I focus on physical forces traditionally construed, I take “force” to cover any dimension of a cause that varies. This notion is not strictly limited to pure “push and pull.” For example, differing doses of a drug may be considered causally differential, and a body might be insensitive to differential doses, but a dose is not, strictly, a force.

  14. Whether an event is insensitive is relative to background conditions and laws. Thanks to an astute referee for drawing attention to this condition.

  15. Lest one is skeptical that these exist, consider that a piece of material at the temperature absolute zero is completely impervious to forces and changes in temperature.

  16. It is a complicated and controversial whether both causal processes do, in fact, run to completion in these cases. In Bernstein (2014), I distinguish between several types of causal completion, and show that trumped and trumping causal processes exhibit no differences in types of causal completion. Since the current discussion is centered around insensitive effects, I do not here address causal completion in detail.

  17. Hitchcock (2011) and Hall and Paul (2013) have recently suggested that some cases of trumping are overdetermination based on ambiguity in what it is to be a “complete” causal process is. I agree with these views. In Bernstein (2014), I give an extended analysis of different types of causal completion, and argue that no distinction between types of causal completion renders trumping a distinct form of redundant causation.

  18. Another challenge in this strain comes from Yablo’s “smart rock,” in which Billy’s rock is equipped with a satellite guidance system that ensures his rock will shatter the window at precisely the time that Suzy’s rock would if Suzy’s rock failed to do the job. To this case there are two responses. First: it is not clear that we shouldn’t call this case overdetermination based on the individual sufficiency of each cause to bring about the effect in precisely the way that it occurs. Normally actual sufficiency to bring about an effect is the mark of an overdetermining cause, but sometimes a cause’s being counterfactually sufficient to bring about the effect suggests overdetermination. Second, insensitivity is the marker of clear cases of overdetermination; that it doesn’t categorize outré cases isn’t a mark against it. (See Bernstein (2014) for an analysis of these cases.)

  19. Schaffer (2000a) holds that overdetermination is characterized by two causes being “causally on par” with respect to an effect.

  20. Schaffer, private communication, and also Schaffer (2003).

  21. The defender of trumping-as-preemption could just hold that what she calls trumping, I call overdetermination. But the disagreement is not merely verbal: to deny causal asymmetry between the two causes is to engage in a metaphysically substantive debate over the existence and source of the causal asymmetry. See Bernstein (2014) for more on this topic.

  22. Thanks to a referee for this objection.


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Correspondence to Sara Bernstein.

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Bernstein, S. What Causally Insensitive Events Tell us About Overdetermination. Philosophia 42, 935–948 (2014).

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  • Overdetermination
  • Redundant causation
  • Causation
  • Causal processes
  • Trumping