No cause for alarm

Thu 01 Aug 2013 09:56 AM

I just read Bradford Skow's Are There Non-Causal Explanations (of Particular Events)?, which is due to be published in BJPS. His thesis, in short, is that No, there are not.*

In dealing with the last of several examples, Skow concludes:

I do not think we have a non-causal explanation here. ... The mathematical theorem tells us that E was unpreventable: nothing, not even changes to prior conditions that broke the laws of nature (if changes of that sort even make sense), could have produced any alternative to E.

The example is one from Mark Colyvan involving the Borsuk-Ulam theorem,** but Skow's reply generalizes to a simpler example. Let E be the event that at the instant the faculty meeting convened, no department member was both present and absent. The explanation for E is that absent means "not present" and the law of non-contradiction applies. This seems to me to be a non-causal explanation if ever there were one. However, since it shows that E is unpreventable in that no prior conditions could have made one of the department members both present and absent just at that moment, on Skow's reasoning (replacing 'mathematical' with 'logical') it is a causal explanation.

This example shows that the work of the article is done by a voracious sense of "causal explanation". Skow considers but rejects two narrower definitions, starting with

T1: A body of fact causally explains E iff it identifies a cause of E.

He provides two arguments against it.

First, "if some event, E, is uncaused then the fact that it is uncaused causally explains why it occurred."

This seems odd to me. I am inclined to say that E's being uncaused shows that there is no causal explanation for E. So noting that E is uncaused gives as much causal explanation as it is possible to give: namely, none. But silently getting up to make a cup of tea also gives as much causal explanation as it is possible to give, because it gives no explanation.


[E]ven if some event, E, has causes, a body of fact need not identify any of them in order to explain E. Suppose that a window breaks, and that Huey, Dewey, and Louie were the only three around who might have thrown a rock at it. The fact that Dewey did not throw a rock but one of the other two did constitutes causal-explanatory information. But it does not identify the actual cause; it merely rules out one possible cause. Now, maybe a complete causal explanation of the window’s breaking must say who threw the rock. But we should allow a body of facts to constitute a partial causal explanation even if it does not constitute a complete causal explanation.

Again, odd. I am inclined to say that Dewey's not throwing the rock only provides some causal explanation along with the background assumption that one of the three must have done it, but then it does so by underwriting an inference to the fact that either Huey or Louie did it. The background assumption is itself a rather indefinite causal explanation (One of the three of them did it) and Dewey's innocence allows us to arrive at a more definite explanation (One of the remaining two did it).

If Dewey's not breaking the window is a causal explanation just on its own, then Pierre's not breaking the window is also a causal explanation. Pierre was never a suspect, you say? Perhaps not before, but now he has been exonerated. His lack of guilt raises itself as nothingness on the ground of the nihilation of the window.

Trivial examples multiply: My not shooting JFK causally explains why he is dead! and so on.

So I am inclined to think that T1 is the right way to characterize causal explanation and that Skow secures his 'No' answer against counterexamples by a highly revisionary broadening of what counts as causal explanation.

* This is me being glib. His thesis is actually the more cautious claim that every alleged example of non-causal particular explanation fails.

** Quoting Skow, the example is: "Right now there are two points, p and q, on the earth that (i) are antipodal (opposite one another); and (ii) have the same temperature and atmospheric pressure." Skow considers the reply that this isn't an event at all, and a similar reply could be given to my example. My intuitions about the ontology of events are not robust enough to shoulder such a move.


from: Greg

Fri 02 Aug 2013 01:53 PM

For what little it's worth: I had basically the same reaction (in a far more inchoate and elementary form than you've spelled out here) when I read this paper recently.