Two Concepts of Causation
Hall (Ned)
Source: Oxford University Website
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Causation1, understood as a relation between events, comes in at least two basic and fundamentally different varieties. One of these, which I call “dependence”, is simply that: counterfactual dependence between wholly distinct events. In this sense, event c is a cause of (distinct) event e just in case e depends on c; that is, just in case, had c not occurred, e would not have occurred. The second variety is rather more difficult to characterize, but we evoke it when we say of an event c that it helps to generate or bring about or produce another event e, and for that reason I call it “production”. Here I will articulate, defend, and begin to explore the consequences of this distinction between dependence and production. A synopsis:
  2. After taking care of some preliminaries (§2), I will argue for the distinction in a slightly devious manner, by starting with a broad-strokes critique of counterfactual analyses of causation2 (§3). The reason for this approach is plain: Since I end up endorsing the simplest kind of counterfactual analysis — albeit only as an analysis of one kind of event-causation3 — it makes sense to pay some attention to the prospects for this and kindred analyses, and to examine why there is no hope of turning them into analyses of a univocal concept of event-causation4. Specifically, my critique will aim to show that the best attempts to shore up counterfactual analyses in the face of well-known and stubborn counterexamples (involving certain kinds of over-determination) rely on three general theses about causation5:
    • Transitivity: If event c is a cause of d, and d is a cause of e, then c is a cause of e.
    • Locality: Causes are connected to their effects via spatiotemporally continuous sequences of causal intermediates.
    • Intrinsicness: The causal structure of a process is determined by its intrinsic, non-causal character (together with the laws).
  3. These theses — particularly the second and third — will require more discussion and elaboration, which will come in due time. For now, contrast them with the thesis that lies at the heart of all counterfactual analyses of causation6:
    • Dependence: Counterfactual dependence between wholly distinct events is sufficient for causation7.
  4. The simplest counterfactual analysis adds that dependence is necessary for causation8. As a general analysis of causation9, it fails for well-known reasons, which we will review shortly. Consequently, no counterfactual analyst that I am aware of endorses this necessary condition. But to my knowledge, all endorse the sufficient condition codified in the thesis of Dependence. Indeed, it is probably safe to say that Dependence is the cornerstone of every counterfactual analysis.
  5. What is the trouble? Simply this: A hitherto ignored class of examples involving what I call “double-prevention” reveals deep and intractable tensions between the theses of Transitivity, Locality, and Intrinsicness, on the one hand, and Dependence, on the other (§4).
  6. In §5, I’ll add to my case by arguing that exactly parallel tensions divide the first three theses from the thesis of
    • Omissions: Omissions — failures of events to occur — can both cause and be caused.
    This thesis will also need further elaboration and discussion.
  7. One immediate result is that counterfactual analyses are doomed to failure (unless, as I think, they are understood to be narrowly targeted at just one kind of event-causation)10: for they need the first three theses if they are to cope with the well-known counterexamples involving over-determination, but they cannot abide these theses if they are to cope with the counterexamples involving double-prevention (or, for that matter, if they admit omissions as causes and effects).
  8. Although important, this result is eclipsed by a more significant lesson that I will develop in §6. For the five theses I have mentioned are, I claim, all true. Given the deep and intractable tensions between them, that can only be because they characterize distinct concepts of causation11. Events can stand in one kind of causal relation — dependence — for the explication of which the counterfactual analysis is perfectly suited (and for which omissions can be perfectly suitable relata). And they can stand in an entirely different kind of causal relation — production — which requires an entirely different kind of analysis (and for which omissions are not suitable relata). Dependence and Omissions are true of the first of these causal relations; Transitivity, Locality, and Intrinsicness are true of the second. I’ll close §6 by defending this claim against some of the most obvious objections.
  9. How are production and dependence to be analyzed? Dependence, I think, is easy; it is counterfactual dependence, nothing more nor less (with, perhaps, the proviso that counterfactual dependence itself can come in different varieties; see §7 for brief discussion). Production is trickier, and in §7 I’ll offer a speculative proposal about its analysis, confined to the special case of deterministic laws that permit no action at a temporal distance or backwards causation12. But I’ll say at once that I am much more confident of the propriety of the distinction than I am of this particular gloss on the “production” half of it.
  10. I’ll close, in §8, by suggesting some ways in which the distinction between production and dependence might be put to work, and by highlighting what I think are the most important bits of unfinished business.


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