Remarks on determinism and causal explanation

By | March 8, 2010

The philosophy of materialism holds that all scientific explanation is done in physical terms; but this should not be read as implying that the materialist claims that reality is structured according to a mechanistic, causal scheme. Someone advancing the philosophy of materialism does not need to assume universal causation. The propositions that reality is causally structured and that all events are linked in a universal chain of cause-and-effect are metaphysical propositions which are not principles of sciences. They can be omitted from a philosophy of materialism. So where does this leave determinism, the view that generally events are connected in cause-effect schemes?

Rather than being a metaphysical claim about the structure of the universe, determinism can be stated as a guiding principle for some scientific and rational inquiry. This principle states that, more often than not, rational inquiry or scientific investigation proceeds as the search for causal explanations. Of course, an exception must be kept in mind: a good number of the sciences, including modern physics, do not always proceed this way.

Causal explanation applies the concepts of cause and effect. As N.R. Hanson points out (see his book, Patterns of Discovery), this type of explanatory scheme is both conceptually- and theory-laden. This means that when we identify an event as cause (or consequence), we presuppose specific understanding of the relevant concepts and theories. Seeing natural events in terms of causal connections is not a simple seeing devoid of theory.

From N.R. Hanson’s Patterns of Discovery:

“..what we refer to as causes is theory-loaded from beginning to end.” (54)
“The terms of physics .. resemble “pawn,” “rook,” “trump,” and “offside”–words which are meaningless except against a background of the games of chess, bridge and football.” (57)

“Seeing what causes a clock’s action requires more than normal vision, open eyes, and a clock: we must learn what to look for.” (59) . . . The chain account [of causality] obscures this by ignoring it: it treats the world as a simple Meccano construction with observers and cameras. But causes are no more visual data simpliciter than are facts. Nothing in sense-datum space could be labeled ‘cause’ and ‘effect.’ (59) [Recall David Hume’s arguments in this light.]

“Causes certainly are connected with effects; but this is because our theories connect them, not because the world is held together by cosmic glue. The world may be glued together by imponderables, but that is irrelevant for understanding causal explanation. The notions behind ‘the cause of x’ and ‘the effect of y’ are intelligible only against a pattern of theory, namely one which puts guarantees on inferences from x to y.” (64) . . “That happenings are often related as cause and effect need not mean that the universe is shackled with ineffable chains, but it does mean that experience and reflexion have given us good reason to expect a Y every time we confront an X.” (65)

Norton’s point seems to be that the causal scheme is a conceptual scheme (theory-laden) which philosophers apply to nature. Like many conceptual schemes, it results as much from what we bring to experience as from the actual connections in nature. Furthermore, the scheme of universal, causal determinism is an optional model of nature, one that may or may not be correct.

The cause-effect scheme, applicable to many real happenings in the world, is itself a conceptual scheme that humans apply in order to achieve some understanding of reality. This conceptual scheme itself is subject to rational critique and evaluation.

When it is applied to certain areas of reality, the cause-effect scheme works much like an empirical proposition. We can observe causal connections that hardly anyone would question, e.g. physical happenings like billiard ball examples, relations between temperature and pressure, sunlight and organic growth, and such.

Of course, even in the physical realm, evidence of these causal connections will vary. In some cases, few would question the claim that specific happening has an identifiable cause, e.g., the billiards ball case. In other cases, we operate on the assumption that the event in question has a specific cause(s), although we might not be able to identify the cause, for example, the result of a coin flip.

In other areas, such as those of human actions and social phenomena, although few deny general application of the cause-effect scheme, specification of cause-effect becomes even more questionable. The cause-effect scheme functions more like a presupposition of our attempts to explain things rather than following directly from observation. Hence, we might have cases in which we do not know, and have no way of learning, the actual cause(s) of the event or action, but assume that there must be such a cause. [See N.W. Hanson, Patterns of Discovery, Chapter 3 - Causality.]

The claim that “all events are causally determined” refers primarily to our explanatory scheme. In order to explain and understand event ‘B’, we look for causal condition “A” which explains ‘B’. [For example, the cause of his illness was the yesterday’s insect bite.] Given an adequate knowledge of event “A” (insect bite) one could infer ‘B’ (subsequent illness). Does this imply a claim as to the nature of reality, vis-a-vis ‘B’? It could, in part, but we should not get carried away. In some cases, such as that of the insect bite and consequential illness, this connection can be established by the applicable science.

But in other cases, the connection is not so clear. For example, when “D” is ‘the decision to invade Iraq’ and “C” is ‘the set of events and conditions preceding the decision’ the causal connection is controversial. Here it is obvious that we are dealing with a conceptual issue. Given certain conceptual presuppositions and a common intellectual culture (assumptions, language), we claim (along with all those who participate in our intellectual culture) that C caused D. Have we thereby shown that ‘C caused D’? Have we shown that this “causal connection” follows from our knowledge the structure of reality? At the very least, this is a debatable proposition concerning “D” (decision to invade Iraq) and “C” (set of conditions and events preceding the decision).

How could anyone ever show that the structure of reality implies that, given “C”, it was inevitable that GW Bush would decide to invade Iraq? The proposition becomes even more doubtful, even verging on nonsense, when the claim is that everything that happens, all historical, psychological, cultural events, all individual actions and such, are inevitable. All this seems part and parcel of a metaphysical philosophy that advances certain, unexamined propositions purporting to describe the structure of reality. (?)

Other than theoretical presuppositions and philosophical assumptions, there aren’t any compelling reasons for asserting that the simple, mechanistic cause-effect scheme describes the structure of all physical reality, much less the structure of all biological, psychological, social and cultural reality.

Work in the following areas would not have advanced much if the controlling principle had been the assumption of simple, mechanistic cause-effect in all of nature: quantum physics, relativity physics, biological sciences, evolutionary theory of natural selection – genetics, etc

Much work in theoretical physics is based on mathematical models, rather than a cause-effect scheme. Any scientist relying on a strictly deterministic picture of the universe would soon find that he was unable to explain all the genuine and apparent randomness in nature, both at the quantum level and at the macro level.

Finally in the areas of the social sciences and humanities, the assumption of a simple cause-effect scheme is of limited usefulness, and the notion “ultimate inevitability” is not helpful at all. Can anyone seriously propose that we could explain such phenomena as history, culture, the arts, literary genius, religious phenomena, etc. as simply inevitable chains of causally-conditioned events?

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