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Causally Productive Activities

Jim Bogen, University of Pittsburgh1

Abstract: This paper suggests and discusses an answer to the question what distinguishes causal from non-causal or coincidental co-occurrences based on Elizabeth Anscombe’s idea that causality is a highly abstract concept whose meaning derives from our understanding of specific causally productive activities (e.g., pulling, scraping, burning), and her rejection of the assumption that causality can be informatively understood in terms of general regularities of some sort.

i. Elizabeth Anscombe’s 1970 Cambridge inaugural address dismissed

Humean and other philosophical theories that try to reduce the notion of causality to notions of regularity on the grounds that causality is one thing and regularity, another. If A is caused by B, she said,

…this does not imply that every A-like thing comes from some B-like thing or set up, or that every B-like thing or set up has an A-like thing coming from it…Any of these may be true, but if any is, that will be an additional fact, not comprised in A’s coming from B…([1] p.136)
Today many philosophers would agree--even though some of them would do so only on the proviso that if tokens of B sometimes fail to produce tokens of A, there must be regularities that conspire behind the scenes to account for the failures.

Anscombe also rejected the idea that to cause is to necessitate. The common core of our ideas about causality, she said, is that effects ‘derive’ or ‘arise’ or ‘come’ from their causes, not that given a cause, its effect could not possibly fail to occur.(ibid). If a batter hit a home run over the centerfield fence, it is immediate that nothing interfered to prevent the ball from clearing the fence after it was hit. But as Anscombe would insist and most people would agree, it doesn’t follow that it was impossible for anything to interfere. Thus hitting the ball caused the ball to clear the fence without necessitating it.2 Furthermore, many philosophers believe that causes operate probabilistically at least at the quantum level, and some believe that even some macroscopic causal interactions are genuinely indeterministic.3

More controversially, Anscombe claimed that one cannot explain what it is for one thing to cause another without appeal to concepts which are themselves irreducibly causal. Suppose the tent you are camping in collapses when a wind comes up. It could be that the wind caused the tent to collapse. It could be that the tent collapsed for other reasons, and it was only a coincidence that the wind was blowing when it collapsed. Anscombe would say the difference between these possibilities cannot be explained without invoking irreducibly causal concepts. This was far too strong a claim for her 1970 audience but now Pearl [5], Spirtes, Glymour, Scheines [6], Woodward[7], Hausman [8], Cartwright[9], Machamer, Darden, Craver[10], and some others agree.

So much for agreement. As I understand her, Anscombe would say that if the tent’s collapse was caused, rather than coincidentally accompanied by the wind, that is because the wind blew it down. Banal as that sounds, it raises issues that are as controversial now as they were in 1970. Blowing something down, like scraping, pushing, wetting, carrying, eating, burning, knocking over, keeping off, squashing, hurting, making noises, and making paper boats (Anscombe’s own examples) are highly specific causal concepts.([1] p.137) Anscombe held that general causal concepts like causing, bringing about, making happen, intervening, resulting from, and the like derive their meanings from specific causal concepts like them.4 If we understand words which signify scraping, pushing, burning, etc, we can understand general terms like ‘cause’. But if a language had no words for specific causes, it could not have, and we could not introduce into it, a word which means what we mean by ‘cause’.([1] p.137).

If blowing down the tent is what distinguishes a causal co-occurrence of wind blowing and tent collapse from a non-causal or coincidental co-occurrence, what makes what the wind does a causally productive activity in the case in which it causes the collapse? Anscombe said that

…causality consists in the derivativeness of an effect from its cause. This is the core, the common feature, of causality in its various kinds. Effects derive from, arise out of, come of [sic] their causes. ([1] p.136)

But not every derivation, arising from, or coming from, is causal. Premises don’t cause the mathematical results mathematicians derive from them. Cars that come from Japan are not caused by Japan. In the morning, people arise from beds which do not cause them. You might want to say that derivations, arisings, and comings from are causal only when what is derived, etc., is an effect which is produced by what it derives from, arises from, or comes of. But production is every bit as abstract a causal notion as cause. If our understanding of what it is for one thing to produce another derives from our understanding of specific causally productive activities, it’s uninformative to say, e.g., that what makes X a causally productive activity is that an effect derives from it and that ‘Y derives from X’ means that X produced Y. What makes the idea that causally productive activities distinguish causal from non-causal sequences of events controversial is that there is no informative general condition which discriminates causally productive activities from goings on which are not causally productive of the effect of interest.

To make this vivid, consider how it applies to a counterexample Wesley Salmon used to argue against Hempelian accounts of causal explanation. Hempel believed that to explain an effect is to deduce a canonical description of it from law-like generalizations and descriptions of initial conditions. Salmon’s counterexample is a deduction whose conclusion is the explanandum sentence ‘John Jones avoided becoming pregnant’, and whose premises are the initial condition sentence ‘John Jones has taken his wife’s birth control pills regularly’ and the law-like generalization, ‘every male who regularly takes birth control pills avoids pregnancy’. Salmon’s objection to Hempel is that this deduction is valid but non-explanatory.([11] p.34)

An Anscombian response to Salmon’s example would appeal to the empirical fact that in the male body the chemicals in the pills Jones took cannot engage in any activities that prevent pregnancy. Oral contraceptives typically include several different chemicals, each of which interferes with a different biological system. One chemical suppresses hormones whose activity is required for the release of eggs from the ovary. Another acts on the cervical mucous to thicken it so that sperm cannot move through it. Another acts on the lining of the uterus to make it unsuitable for the implantation of a fertilized egg. Yet another chemical kills sperm.([12]) The reason the pills don’t prevent pregnancy in men is that men have no ovaries, or uteri for the chemicals to act on, and no eggs for sperm to fertilize. The reason men do not become pregnant is that the male reproductive system is composed of parts which cannot engage in the causally productive activities they would have to engage in to produce pregnancy.5 This treatment of Salmon’s example assumes there is no need to explain e.g., why thickening cervical mucous causes rather than non-causally accompanies a change in its consistency.

Birth control chemicals do engage in some causally productive activities in men who ingest them. They dissolve in the stomach, pass through the small intestine and travel in the blood stream into the tissues it irrigates, interacting in various ways with molecules they encounter along the way. Why don’t those activities qualify as causes of John Jones’ non-pregnancy? According to Jim Woodward’s counterfactual dependence theory of causality the answer depends upon the fact that non-pregnancy in males is not counterfactually dependent upon the activities the birth control chemicals engage in when males ingest them. By contrast, there is a counterfactual dependency between non-pregnancy in women and the activities of birth control chemicals they ingest. In both cases, the relevant dependencies obtain only if non-pregnancy would have resulted in idealized versions of John and Joan had ideal interventions promoted the activities of the chemicals in their bodies.([14], pp.48 ff.)

The Anscombian alternative appeals not to counterfactuals but to facts about the chemicals and the causally productive activities they engage in. We might know enough about the chemicals and their activities to draw counterfactual conclusions about what would have resulted from ideal interventions on them. But if we know enough to evaluate the counterfactuals Woodward proposes as conditions for causal relevance, we should be able to implement an Anscombian treatment of Salmon’s case without invoking them. If you appreciate the fact that John Jones has no uterus, ovaries, or eggs you needn’t appeal to counterfactuals to explain why the chemicals which suppress hormones, thicken cervical mucous, and kill sperm aren’t responsible for his non-pregnancy.6

According to Anscombe, it is a brute fact, e.g., that the activity of pulling on a door can cause rather than coincidentally accompany a door opening, that scraping a carrot removes (rather than coincidentally accompanies the removal of) its skin, that wetting something does not merely accompany, but causes its getting wet, and so on. If she’s right, then, it’s misguided to think we need a general account of causality like Hume’s, Hempel’s, or Woodward’s to explain why any specific causally productive activity is causally relevant to the production of an effect. Instead of suggesting a general, uniformly applicable answer, to the question of what differentiates causes from non-causes, what I take to be Anscombe’s view calls for piecemeal treatments of questions about the productions of specific effects. Accordingly, whether a given factor made a causal contribution to the production of a given effect depends upon contingent, empirically checkable facts about how the relevant things behave, and what results from their behavior.

To some, this may seem tantamount to conceding that there is nothing philosophically interesting to be said about causality. I think that philosophical or not,7 the Anscombian treatment of Salmon’s example exemplifies a perfectly satisfactory response to the philosophical question of what differentiates causes from non-causal factors that coincidentally accompany an effect.

ii. There are some recognizably philosophical questions for an Anscombian to answer. The first have to do with the concept of a causally productive activity. Anyone who rejects the received general conditions for distinguishing causes from non-causal factors had better be able to supply something to take their place. Unless there are principled constraints on what can legitimately be called a causally productive activity it is vacuous to say that causes are things which engage in causally productive activities. If (as said) general notions like productivity don’t illuminate the difference between activities which are causally productive of a given effect and goings on which are not, how then can there be principled decisions about whether something should be considered a causally productive activity.

A related issue is whether causally productive activity is a unified concept, or an arbitrary catchall. If all causally productive activities aren’t distinguished by a single, non disjunctive feature (of no more than manageable complexity), what makes the concept of a causally productive activity anymore interesting than a randomly assembled list?

The second question has to do with what kinds of things we can perceive.

17th and 18th century empiricists believed the content of an idea can include nothing beyond what is given in introspective or perceptual experience. Locke thought we get the idea that things of one kind cause things of another by perceiving instances of the one causing instances of the other.([15] pp.324-5) But Hume thought we can’t observe any such thing. Watch any causal interaction as closely as you can, he said, and whatever you see, it will not be the connection between events which makes one a cause of another.([16] pp. 155-72. Cf. [1] p.137-8) It follows, Hume thought, that in order to have content, our idea of causality must reduce to ideas of other things that we can perceive.

Tell people you believe in causally productive activities which don’t reduce to regularities or other non-causal sorts of things, and they’re likely to give you a funny look and ask if you really think we can perceive causality. Hume’s ghost is whispering in their ears, telling them that we can’t form an acceptably clear idea about a causally productive activity unless causality is or reduces to something we can see, hear, taste, smell, feel, or introspect. He is trying to ask whether what Anscombe says about causal concepts is psychologically realistic.

iii. I’ll consider the perceptual question first because it’s the easiest of the two. It assumes, as Locke and Hume believed, that concepts derive their content from introspective and perceptual experience in such a way that they can have no content over and above that of the experiences that give rise to them. But why should we believe that? We don’t have to think grammar is identical or reduces to anything we can see, hear, or otherwise experience in order accept the fact that at least some people have well-developed concepts of the grammar of the languages they know. We don’t have to think truth is identical or reduces to anything perceptible to accept that people who can distinguish true claims from false ones have a concept of truth. There are lots of interesting unanswered questions about how people acquire their ideas of grammar (truth) but ‘can grammar (truth) be perceived?’ is not one of them. By the same token, you don’t have to believe that causality or causal connections are perceivable to believe we have concepts of causally productive activities.

A related objection holds that the notion of a causally productive activity is too anthropomorphic to ground our understanding of causality. The objection assumes that concepts of causally productive activities derive from experiences of manipulating things, and as before, that a concept can have no more content than the experiences which give rise to it. This is supposed to show that that we can’t think an inanimate object (e.g., a charged particle) engages in a causally productive activity (e.g., repelling another charged particle) unless we conceive of it as being something like a human agent which manipulates things the way humans do. I don’t know of any decisive arguments for the first assumption. The second assumption is implausible. If it were true, picking up one’s idea of a wave from experiences of waves that travel through air or water should debar one from understanding wave propagation without a medium. But the most serious troubles people have when they try to understand it doesn’t come from gaps in their introspective and perceptual experience. It comes from the difficulty of the mathematics used in wave physics. And the fact that people do learn the physics argues that the empiricist assumption about the limits of conceptual content is false.

Alison Gopnik and her associates produced impressive experimental evidence that contrary to what Hume would predict, very young children acquire causal concepts and engage in causal reasoning which go well beyond generalizations of co-occurrences or regularities among co-occurences they have observed. They could pick out the cause of a result from factors which accompanied it with the same relative frequency. .([17], p.372-3) They could distinguish between, and appeared to understand the difference between direct and indirect causes of the same effect. …([18] p.82) And they could figure out how to intervene to stop an ongoing effect by doing something they had not previously observed.([18] p.74)

Did the children in these experiments have only general concepts like making something happen or making something stop, or did they also have specific causal concepts like the ones Anscombe said were fundamental? P.L. Harris, et al describe experiments which make it plausible that very young children understand and employ notions of highly specific causally productive activities. Three and four year olds understood that walking across a floor in muddy shoes gets it dirty, and that one can keep the floor clean by taking off the shoes before you enter.([19] p.238).8 They understood that pens can get your hands dirty by leaking ink and that you can’t avoid it by choosing a different color, but that you can avoid dirtying your hands by using a pencil instead.([19] p.243 ff.) They understood that the pen isn’t the only thing that can dirty your hands; if you touch the picture you drew it can smudge them. ([19] p.246) They knew that if someone dirtied the floor by painting it, it wouldn’t have kept it clean if he’d used his fingers instead of a brush.([19] p.241) They knew that a blower can blow out a candle, but only if it’s turned on and there’s no barrier to block the wind. .([19] p.253) They knew that a light source can illuminate a wall, but a blower cannot, and that a light source cannot blow out a candle. Having seen what one blower could and could not do, they weren’t surprised that other blowers could and could not do the same thing.([19] p.253)

Anscombe’s ideas are psychologically adequate if children can engage in causal reasoning which uses concepts of causally productive activities The moral I draw from the Gopnik’s, Harris’, and their co-authors’ experiments is that whether or not children do whatever Hume and others may mean by “perceiving causality”, children can and do pick up and use non-anthropomorphic concepts of specific causally productive activities. Even if the experiments do not answer the question of whether children “perceive causality”, they show that they can and do acquire and use concepts of causally specific activities.9

iv. Scientists do draw principled distinctions between genuine and spurious causally productive activities, but the constraints they rely on to do this are too various and for the most part too local to be captured informatively by any single account of causality as general as what the standard philosophical literature tries to supply. As I illustrate in §vi, below, significantly different considerations constrain investigations into the causes of different kinds of effects. Furthermore, the constraints develop over time; investigators who look for the causes of one and the same effect during different historical periods typically do not operate under all of the same constraints. Furthermore, different groups of investigators studying the same effect during the same historical period may not acknowledge the same constraints. That is not to say that scientific beliefs and practices determine whether an activity ever actually occurs, and if so, whether and what it contributes to the production of any given effect.10 What changes over time are the kinds of activities scientists can recognize as responsible for the effects they study. For example, chemical and biological thinking has changed so much since the 19th century that without some familiarity with the relevant history it’s difficult for us to grasp, let alone take seriously, all of the considerations which constrained 19th investigations of fermentation. What has changed since vitalists like Pasteur and anti-vitalists like Liebig argued about whether non-living things can convert sugar into alcohol is not the process of fermentation, but the way scientists understand it. The same holds for 19th and early 20th century debates about neuronal inhibition. Even though neuroscience has changed dramatically since the turn of the 19th century, neurons engaged then in the same inhibitory activities they do now.

If different scientists can accept very different kinds of things as causally productive activities because they operate under different constraints and base their decisions on different considerations, why isn’t causally productive activity just an open ended catch-all for items that don’t have enough of interest in common with one another to fall under a single concept? Why isn’t it a cognitive analogue of what the things Aristotle called heaps as opposed to unified wholes? What makes causally productive activity a concept is more like what makes game and organism concepts than what makes triangle a concept. That may remind you of Morton O. Beckner’s account of polytypic biological concepts, but there are differences and it may help to begin by noting them.

The concept of a triangle is monotypic, which is to say that the possession of a non-disjunctive property (the property of being a closed, plane figure bounded by three straight line) is necessary and sufficient for something to qualify as a triangle. By contrast, Beckner would say, ruby crowned kinglet is a polytypic concept. That means that there is a collection, G, of properties such that every bird which falls under the concept possesses a ‘…large (but unspecified) number of the properties in G’, each property in G ‘…is possessed by large numbers…’ of birds that qualify as ruby crowned kinglets, and ‘…no…[property] in G is possessed by every individual in the aggregate.’11 ([20] p.22) Causally productive activity is not polytypic in Beckner’s sense because there is no G whose members are non-disjunctive properties possessed in large numbers by every instance of scraping, pushing, wetting, carrying, eating, burning, knocking over, keeping off, squashing, making noises, making paper boats (that was Anscombe’s list), every clear instance of opening the pore of an ion channel, pushing or rotating a helical component of a protein, depolarizing an axonal membrane, electro-chemical attracting and repelling, bonding, releasing, diffusing, dissolving,12 and every instance of every other causally productive activity. Furthermore, causally productive activities are far, far too diverse to have any chance of meeting Beckner’s requirement of a G such that each one of its members are possessed by a large number of causally productive activities.13

By contrast, Aristotle said that some highly useful and perfectly intelligible concepts cannot be captured by necessary and sufficient condition style definitions and must be explained instead by appeal to analogies. To understand such a concept is to understand and grasp connections between analogies among things which justify its application to them.([22] 1048a/30—b/8) Aristotle’s idea fits the concept of a causally productive activity better than Beckner’s. All that the many different activities that fall under the concept have to do with one another is that each one is similar or analogous to one or more of the others with regard to features that are causally relevant to the production of their effects. The similarities and analogies need not be the same for any appreciable number of causally productive activities. The features with respect to which they hold must be “causally relevant”, but if no single, universally applicable criterion distinguishes causes from causally extraneous factors, there should be no single, universally applicable criterion for causal relevance. The historical examples I sketch in §vi illustrate some of the many different kinds of considerations which can determine whether an activity is causally relevant to the production of an effect.

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