Four Dogmas in the Dominant Dialectic about Causation
Abstract: In my talk, I will discuss four ideas that are widely accepted in the philosophical community, and argue that there really is very little to back them up. The ideas are:
- There are many and mutually incompatible views of causation
- Causation is at rock bottom a relation between temporally distinct entities
- Causes act on their effects
- The case against the necessity of causal connections is overwhelming
Theses (2), (3), and (4) have their origins in the empiricist tradition, but have now become part and parcel of philosophical though in general; even causal realists tend to accept them, and this is why (1) is also accepted. It is of course particularly worrying that causal realists accept them, because their acceptance has a negative impact on current attempts to revive the Aristotelian view of causation. Indeed, my argument primarily addresses those who profess to be causal realists, but do not realise that they have unknowingly accepted elements of the empiricist view that now have become part and parcel of the presuppositional depth-structure of the philosophy of causation generally.
Nevertheless, some of what I say has implications for the Humean as well. For instance, the idea that the case against the necessity of causal connections is strong is often taken to be a reason to adopt Humeanism. I will demonstrate that most of the arguments in favour of (4) do not really address any view that has seriously endorsed causal necessity, except those that already incorporate the dogmas that stem from the empiricist conception, in particular (2) and (3).
As for the other dogmas, then with respect to (1) I will argue, firstly, that the Aristotelian view of causation is the only view that attempts to explain what causation is, as opposed to merely describe causation in terms of certain salient features of how causation appears to us. Secondly, that the Aristotelian view logically entails that the world should exhibit all the salient features that other views appeal to in their description of causation. That is, if the world is Aristotelian, then it will exhibit the kind of regularity that regularity accounts talk about, effects will be counterfactually dependent on their causes, and intervention/manipulation will be a great method to identify causal connections. On the other hand, if the Aristotelian view is assumed to be false, it follows that the world should fail to exhibit regularity, effects will not be counterfactually dependent on their causes, and intervention will be an unreliable method to identify causal connections.
I will finish by pointing out that the Aristotelian view does not represent causation as a mere two-place relation, nor does it depict causes as acting on their effects; it represents the relation between cause and effect as itself a product of something more fundamental, notably an interaction between powerful particulars. The Aristotelian view claims that the particulars involved in the cause act on each other and thus bring the effect into existence. In fact, one can wonder where the idea comes from that causes act on their effects, since it is not found in any major school of thought prior to the rise of empiricism in the 17th Century, not in the natural philosophy of the early enlightenment, not in common sense, nor in classical physics or chemistry. In fact, not even Hume believed that any of his contemporaries believed that causes act on their effects. I conclude that the idea is an anomaly in the history of human thought.