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Causal explanation

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q144-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2023
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

Article Summary

An explanation is an answer to a why-question, and so a causal explanation is an answer to ‘Why X?’ that says something about the causes of X. For example, ‘Because it rained’ as an answer to ‘Why is the ground wet?’ is a causal explanation.

Causal explanation is philosophically important because explanation-in-general is philosophically important, and causal explanation is a basic kind of explanation. So a complete philosophy will include a theory of explanation, and a complete theory of explanation will offer criteria for being a causal explanation.

The simplest theory of causal explanation says that ‘E happened because X’ is a causal explanation if X describes one or more causes of E. Another theory permits explanations that do less to count as causal explanations; it is enough to say something about the causes of E, without identifying any particular cause. The ‘manipulationist’ theory, by contrast, demands more. For any event E, there are factors which, had they been different, E would not have happened, or would have happened differently; this theory requires a causal explanation to both identify some of those factors and convey how E depends on them. No known theory is without problems.

If causal explanation is one basic kind of explanation, what are the others? Two candidates are teleological explanation (e.g. ‘the plant’s leaves turned east in order to face the sun’) and reason-for-action explanation (e.g. ‘that store sells milk; that was Smith’s reason for shopping there’). But it may be that explanations of these kinds are implicitly causal explanations – maybe, for example, every teleological explanation is equivalent to a causal explanation.

Citing this article:
Skow, Bradford. Causal explanation, 2023, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q144-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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