Causation, further themes

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N114-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2005
Retrieved July 14, 2024, from

Article Summary

The traditional focus of philosophical interest in causation has been token causation: the kind of causation that relates particular dated events. There has been controversy in recent times over the nature of such events. Donald Davidson proposed that events are concrete particulars: like objects, they have spatio-temporal locations, identity conditions, and can be described in many different ways. However, most philosophers espouse one or other property-based conception of events in order to capture the idea that causation relates events in virtue of properties associated with those events.

More generally, philosophers have usually been concerned to provide a priori analyses of the concept of causation, though recently some have attempted to provide empirical analyses by investigating what physics says about the processes underlying causal relations. A recent much-discussed conceptual analysis of causation is David Lewis’s counterfactual theory. This theory ingeniously elaborates the idea that an event c causes an event e just when it is true that if c had not occurred e would not have occurred. However, the theory encounters difficulty explaining examples of pre-emption in which there are several possible causal pathways leading to some effect, only one of which goes through to completion.

Such examples highlight the centrality of the idea of a process to the concept of causation. A recent functionalist theory attempts to capture this fact by defining causation as the intrinsic relation that typically accompanies a counterfactual dependence of one event on a distinct event. Such a theory takes the existence of a counterfactual dependence to be a defeasible marker of the presence of the structural feature of reality that is the causal relation. While it has some success explaining examples of pre-emption, this functionalist theory has been criticised on the grounds that causation is not a relation at all, as evidenced by causal statements involving absences and omissions as causes or effects. The question whether it is possible to give a full conceptual analysis of causation is the subject of a currently vigorous philosophical debate.

    Citing this article:
    Menzies, Peter. Causation, further themes, 2005, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N114-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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