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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q010-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

Two opposed viewpoints raise complementary problems about causation. The first is from Hume: watch the child kick the ball. You see the foot touch the ball and the ball move off. But do you see the foot cause the ball to move? And if you do not see it, how do you know that that is what happened? Indeed if all our experience is like this, and all of our ideas come from experience, where could we get the idea of causation in the first place?

The second is from Kant. We can have no ideas at all with which to experience nature – we cannot experience the child as a child nor the motion as a motion – unless we have organized the experience into a causal order in which one thing necessarily gives rise to another. The problem for the Kantian viewpoint is to explain how, in advance of experiencing nature in various specific ways, we are able to provide such a complex organization for our experience.

For the Kantian the objectivity of causality is a presupposition of our experience of events external to ourselves. The Humean viewpoint must find something in our experience that provides sufficient ground for causal claims. Regular associations between putative causes and effects are the proposed solution. This attention to regular associations connects the Humean tradition with modern statistical techniques used in the social sciences to establish causal laws.

Modern discussions focus on three levels of causal discourse. The first is about singular causation: about individual ‘causings’ that occur at specific times and places, for example, ‘the cat lapped up the milk’. The second is about causal laws: laws about what features reliably cause or prevent other features, as in, ‘rising inflation prevents unemployment’. The third is about causal powers. These are supposed to determine what kinds of singular causings a feature can produce or what kinds of causal laws can be true of it – ‘aspirins have the power to relieve headaches’ for example.

Contemporary anglophone work on causality has centred on two questions. First, ‘what are the relations among these levels?’ The second is from reductive empiricisms of various kinds that try to bar causality from the world, or at least from any aspects of the world that we can find intelligible: ‘what is the relation between causality (on any one of the levels) and those features of the world that are supposed to be less problematic?’ These latter are taken by different authors to include different things. Sensible or measurable properties like ‘redness’ or ‘electric voltage’ have been attributed a legitimacy not available to causal relations like ‘lapping-up’ or ‘pushing over’: sometimes it is ‘the basic properties studied by physics’. So-called ‘occurrent’ properties have also been privileged over dispositional properties (like water-solubility) and powers. At the middle level where laws of nature are concerned, laws about regular associations between admissible features – whether these associations are deterministic or probabilistic – have been taken as superior to laws about what kinds of effects given features produce.

Citing this article:
Cartwright, Nancy. Causation, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q010-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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