Causation and Manipulability
Woodward (James)
Source: Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2001-8
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract

Manipulablity theories of causation1, according to which causes are to be regarded as handles or devices for manipulating effects, have considerable intuitive appeal and are popular among social scientists and statisticians. This article surveys several prominent versions of such theories advocated by philosophers, and the many difficulties they face. Philosophical statements of the manipulationist approach are generally reductionist in aspiration and assign a central role to human action. These contrast with recent discussions employing a broadly manipulationist framework for understanding causation2, such as those due to the computer scientist Judea Pearl and others, which are non-reductionist and rely instead on the notion of an intervention. This is simply an appropriately exogenous causal process; it has no essential connection with human action. This interventionist framework manages to avoid at least some of these difficulties faced by traditional philosophical versions of the manipulability theory and helps to clarify the content of causal claims.

  1. Introduction
  2. An Early Version of an Agency Theory
  3. A More Recent Version of an Agency Theory
  4. Causation3 and Free Action
  5. Interventions
  6. Structural Equations, Directed Graphs, and Manipulationist Theories of Causation4
  7. Is Circularity a Problem?
  8. The Plurality of Causal Concepts
  9. Interventions That Do Not Involve Human Action
  10. Interventions and Counterfactuals
  11. Possible and Impossible Interventions
  12. Scope of Interventionist Accounts
  13. (Alleged) Causes That Are Unmanipulable for Logical, Conceptual, or Metaphysical Reasons
  14. More Recent Criticisms of Interventionist Accounts
  15. Bibliography
    Other Internet Resources
    Related Entries


First published Fri Aug 17, 2001; substantive revision Mon Oct 20, 2008; see Stanford Archive: Causation and Manipulability.

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