Sunday, September 13, 2015

Either Agent Causation is Conceptually Prior to Event Causation or Causality is Known A Priori

Some people believe that events are causes.  What caused the event of the Twin Towers collapsing?  The event of the planes crashing into the buildings.  Events cause other events or states of affairs.

I'm suspicious that events are causes at all.  But suppose events are causes.  Could they be the only causes?  Could one reasonably hold that there is only event causation but not agent causation?

I doubt it.  It seems that our concept of agent causation is more fundamental than event causation.  If you have the concept of an event as a cause you also have the concept of an agent cause.

Imagine that you are a sentient rock or tree.  Let's say you are a rock that can think but that's all you can do.  You are a completely passive observer of the world.  Perhaps you have eyes and ears but they don't move.  For if you were to move your eyes to the right or left, up or down, you would no longer be simply a passive observer; you would also be able to do something which would affect what you observed.

So you sit, inert, observing the world around you.  Would you ever acquire the idea of a cause?  You would see regularities in nature.  You would see the sun rising each day and setting, you would see leaves falling after they changed colors, you would see mice dying after being bitten by cats, but from your observations you would have no basis to distinguish between causal and non-causal regularities.

Generally, when one wants to distinguish between a non-causal correlation and a causal one, one runs an experiment.  But then one has the concept or belief that one can do something such that one will be in a better position to determine the difference between a non-causal correlation and a causal one.

Perhaps, though, an inert, thinking rock could come equipped with a priori knowledge about which regularities would be genuinely causal regularities and which would not.  But is it known a priori that events are causes but there are no agent causes?


  1. One could endorse a regularity view of causation. On this view, the rock's situation is how things really are--there are regularities but we can't distinguish between causal and non-causal regularities. I think Hume probably thought something like this, at least in places, and it isn't hard to see why, since it is notoriously difficult to give a theory that always separates "causal" regularities from non-causal ones.

    But, I think that the intuition that causes are real in a much less deflationist way is a strong one.

  2. But the regularity view of causation is doomed. One could have mighty good inductive evidence that a Rooster crowing precedes the sun rising but one would be wrong that this is a causal relation.

    So a regularity does not account for a causal relation.

    Hume thought "impressions in ideas out." So how to account for the idea of causation (which he seemed to think we have) if there is no outward impression? The idea comes from the impression we have of an EXPECTATION of one event following another. If he's correct, then he's given an empirical account of from where our idea of a cause comes. But that fails to account for the fact that we know from experiments that our expectations on the basis of regularities are wrong. How could we know that we are wrong if causation is simply the psychological state of our expecting one event to follow another?

  3. Right! Nice. Let's not be regularity theorists about causation.