- Imagine a psychologist who has formulated a theory of how people understand various interactions among physical stuff, that is, an account of the implicit folk theory of physics. His model incorporates parameters for characterizing contingent conditions like a value for how dense an object is represented as being or an implicit estimate of how quickly a certain object will return to rest after being set in motion. It includes hypotheses about variances among people and performance limitations that affect how people's understanding is applied in practice. Suppose all the psychologist's work is methodologically unimpeachable and that the model is stunningly successful given the criteria psychologists use for evaluating theories, for example, making precise and accurate predictions of people's responses to questions about physics and predictions about how they will behave when confronted with practical problems that test what they know about physics.
- Now imagine the response our psychologist would receive if he suggested to the physics department that his psychological theory ought to be adopted as a constraint on their theories of force and energy and so forth. The physicist according to this program would be tasked with filling in the psychological theory's various parameters to arrive at a model that matches the structure of the external world. Or worse, imagine our psychologist arguing that regardless of any virtues the physicists' current theories have, they cannot really concern force, energy, mass, space, or time because in order for any theory to be pertinent to the topic of energy, for example, its claims would need to avoid conflict with folk wisdom concerning energy, for example, that exercise increases a person's energy. Whether a psychology of folk physics serves as good constraint on theories of real world physics is of course ultimately an empirical question, but not only do we have independent reasons to reject this program as an extremely implausible strategy for improving physics, there is no reason to believe that a successful physics must obey the implicit logic of folk physics (or naive opinions about the use of physics terms) on pain of not really being a theory of physics.
- Metaphysicians of causation routinely practice activities analogous to this hypothetical psychologist. All too frequently, theories designed to accommodate linguistic features of natural language are pressed into service as constraints on theories about the behaviour of the external world, with similar prospects for success. Metaphysical theories of causation are standardly required to concern the external world in the sense of being applicable to astronomy, ecology, and economics while at the same time vindicating the literal truth of folk intuitions about causes. The practice primarily steins from the routine use of a crippled form of conceptual analysis. While conceptual analysis of some sort is necessary for any useful intellectual investigation, malignant versions of it exert widespread influence over standard practices, including those of scholars who nominally disavow conceptual analysis.
- The presence of the bad kind of conceptual analysis is at least understandable in philosophical disciplines having little relation to science. What is striking about the kind of conceptual analyses standardly presupposed in the philosophical literature on causation, though, is that an alternative form of conceptual analysis is readily available: empirical analysis. What empirical analysis consists in, I think, has not yet been adequately articulated, as demonstrated by continuing puzzlement over its aims, for example, Bontley (2006). The negative part of my task here is to expose that aspect of the orthodox metaphysics of causation which should be rejected by serious investigators of causation, and the positive part is to sketch a viable alternative to the orthodox methodology.
- Returning to the food analogy, there is one respectable project of uncovering that which is nutritious. Another respectable project is to figure out people's psychology of food, i.e., why they categorize certain items as food and others as non-food. Whatever that story is, it almost certainly is going to involve as a first approximation that our food concept roughly tracks that which is nutritious. At a second order approximation, facts about perception, culture, the need for cognitive efficiency, and a whole bunch of other factors irrelevant to nutrition are going to come into play to explain why 'what is food' is not precisely the same as ‘what is nutritious.'
- Analogously, one respectable project is to find out how the external world is structured such that some events serve as good means for bringing about other events. That constitutes the metaphysics of causation. Another respectable project is to figure out people's psychology of causation, why they categorize certain happenings as causes and others as non-causes. Whatever that story is, it almost certainly will involve a first approximation that the causation concept roughly tracks whatever is responsible for the existence of effective strategies and general facts about them, e.g., that effective strategies are temporally asymmetric. At a second order approximation, facts about perception, our need to learn about causal regularities without running controlled experimental trials, cognitive efficiency, and perhaps even culture are all going to come into play to explain why 'what was the cause' is not equivalent to 'what was driving the world's temporal evolution.'
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