PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Toward A New Approach to Causal Selection

In my poster, I introduce and motivate an alternative philosophical approach to the problem of causal selection, which concerns how one or a few causes are selected for attention in complex causal situations that include many causes and conditions. Causal selection is typically thought to pose a philosophical challenge for theories of causation: the right theory of causation ought to provide a principled way of identifying the cause, or the actual cause(s) by distinguishing them form mere conditions. Given this understanding, causal selection becomes a problem much like other traditional problems of causation (e.g. preemption, omission, etc.) where cases of causal selection are taken to provide ready-made tests for a proposed theory of causation or causal explanation. This received view fits causal selection into a mainstream dialectical pattern in the philosophy of causation: if a causal theory can coincide with cases of causal selection, then that causal theory gains credibility. If the causal theory fails to coincide with cases of causal selection, then that causal theory should be modified, abandoned, or the problem of causal selection dismissed.

I propose an alternative approach to developing a philosophical account of causal selection. This alternative approach is based on a broader understanding of causal selection and the philosophical problem it poses. It recognizes that causal selection often involves selecting among causes (Waters 2007) not just distinguishing causes and conditions. It analyzes selection relative to pragmatic aims and interests of practitioners. Given the alternative conception of causal selection a richer set of problems can be pursued within a pragmatic framework. With this alternative approach, philosophical analyses can reveal nuances of complex causal reasoning in different kinds of contexts and across different scientific and engineering fields (rather than looking for a singular solution at a very abstract level of understanding).

My approach takes a liberal account of causation for distinguishing causes from non-causes. I use Woodward’s (2003) interventionist account, which has modest requirements for being a cause. This approach looks to context-sensitive pragmatics to explain why certain causes are selected when they are. It thereby offers a way to account for causal selection that draws from actual principles and techniques that scientists and engineers when modeling, manipulating, constructing, or explaining complex causal situations, and why these principles are successful.

Thinking of causal selection as I propose also opens the door to reconceiving traditional problems of causation in terms of pragmatic causal selection among many causes. In addition to providing a different angle on important problem in the philosophical literature on causation, it also allows philosophical analyses to be informed by examples from scientific and engineering practices.

Author Information:

Brian Hanley    
University of Calgary


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