The Causation Debate

I have been discussing causation over at Crooked Timber and despite a couple of attempts to explain myself I am not being understood. Having chucked a simple textbook example at me folks seem to have just ignored my point which I find interesting. To recap the point at issue is when does a set of correlations become a cause? I have proposed that it becomes a cause when some of those correlations lie in the future, when there are predictions involved and the correlation is surprising—i.e., is the correlation is true it adds to our knowledge of the world (see here; my thinking here has been entirely shaped by the late, great Richard Feynman). So if I claim that when you jump up and down on one leg while picking your noes, your tooth ache will always disappear then you can try it out and see it is it works—see if you observe this correlation the next time you get a tooth ache. If you do (and repeatedly so) then you have some new tentative causal knowledge that will become strengthened as you reliably see the correlation in a variety of circumstances. The textbook example that people have been throwing at me is that if I take causation is correlation too seriously then I will be forced to conclude that cock’s crows cause sun to rise, but this isn’t a problem here. Suns rising after cocks crowing isn’t surprising to me—I am not looking to explain that correlation having a perfectly satisfactory set of causal relationships to explain it (but thanks anyway).

I prodded noen (a commentator of this blog) and noen was good enough take pity on me and explain what nobody had thought worth spelling out to me:

I’m not sure what you’re getting at Chris. Discovering a correlation is an invitation to further study. One shouldn’t leap to conclusions. The problem is that no matter how fine grained our mechanism is there will always be a leap involved. So we are left with observing that B follows A and concluding that A causes B. We call that deduction but there is a gap in our understanding. There always will be.

Now in my proposed system there is no leaping to conclusions about correlations being causations as causal relationships don’t exist outside in the world apart from observers but are ideal (i.e., mental) constructions. If you are looking to supplement your knowledge concerning a given correlation then it becomes a candidate for a causal relationship because you have decided it is so: by definition there is no jumping to conclusions. And as I am perfectly happy with mere correlations I am not left groping around for mechanisms or worried about any gaps in my understanding. Or at least this remains my conceit.

One of the reasons that I think that there is a gap between me and the others is my Buddhist view of the world sees it as entirely natural place causation as a nexus between the external world and our minds (seeing the two as existing dependently) and to allow said nexus to do some epistemological shovel work. Physicalists—still the prevailing fashion, and misguidedly so (IMHO)—will find this unacceptable. Might this the cause of the gap between me and the others?

4 responses to “The Causation Debate

  1. They sort of ignore me at CT too. I’m not an academic but I do my best to keep up. Most of the regulars know each other professionally. Most of them have probably forgotten more about philosophy than I ever knew.

    Also, promoting your own blog in your comment is considered bad form. Your name includes a link and most of the folk know how to click on it.

  2. Sorry for the mixup–I have corrected the article.

    I have checked round on various articles on blog etiquette and I can’t find anyone who is saying that it is bad form to link to articles on your own blog if it is contributing to the conversation.

    Someone who jumps into a discussion thread with ‘hi guys, check out my blog’ is clearly a pest and that was discouraged. I also checked the CT comment policy: they are silent on the matter.

    In this case I didn’t feel I could comfortably deal with the point in a comment so I wrote an article and linked it. Looking back, I would normally provide more of a summary of the point being made in the linked article and I will be more careful to do this in future.

    I don’t doubt that some people will take umbrage at other blogs being linked from their comment threads.

    Thanks for the warning.

  3. You may be right, I could easily be wrong. It’s just a vague sense that I have from other blogs, not CT. As far as causation goes, I’ll have to think more on it a bit later, it’s just too nice right now to stay indoors. But I don’t see how one gets past making some sort of intuitive leap from say bubbles in a cloud chamber to subatomic particles.

  4. I have been thinking about the ethics of cross-linking in comments and it is one to think about. I think the issue is whether you are contributing to the discussion thread, and indeed whether you are subverting it. As I said, I think I was on the borderline (and thanks for raising my awareness) but I can also see that some bloggers may also get over-possessive where their comment threads are concerned. I try to think how I would feel about it if I was running a blog at CT.

    The weather in Brighton is very pleasant at the moment so I understand. I didn’t quite get the sense of your bubble chamber example, so please feel free to amplify on it when you get the time.

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