Sunday, September 28, 2014

In defense of causes

Students in Early Modern Philosophy seem shocked to learn that the scientific revolution beginning with Galileo was in effect an attack on the notion of causality. They assume that scientific explanations are causal explanations. Appeals to causality, however, did not figure in early modern science. Nor (while common in ordinary affairs) do they figure in our contemporary explanatory practices, whether inside science or out.

Scientific laws make no mention of causes, for instance. Galileo’s law for a freely-falling body

d = 1/2gt2 

tells us how far the object has fallen in a given number of seconds. The value for ‘g’ – 32.2 ft/sec2 – cannot be said to ‘cause’ the object to fall. (I propose a way to say that it does.)

In the ‘Deductive-Nomological’ model logical deduction takes the place of causality. You derive the phenomenon in question as a logical conclusion from general laws plus a statement of initial conditions. Indeed, to its advocates it was a virtue that it avoided issues of causality.

Increasingly, scientific explanations take the form of statistical correlations, leaving the question of causality entirely aside. The belief seems to be that, once you grasp the patterns of statistical variation, you have access to everything that it is possible – or necessary – to know.

So, are causal relations real features of the world or are they not? If they are, then explanations omitting them are spurious.

On the other hand, if they are not real, some difficult philosophical questions arise. A formulation of a law of nature is logically contingent. So if we take it to express a natural necessity then (barring the postulation of a Lawgiver) there will be no explanation why the particular law in question is the law. On the other hand if we accept a statistical correlation as the explaining formula, then the fact of the correlation itself cries out for explanation.

To be fair, three important considerations made denying a place for causality in explanation seem a reasonable thing to do – one historical, one epistemic, the third conceptual.

First, causes formed a central feature in Aristotelian natural philosophy. It is easier now to see that the apparent incompatibility between Aristotelian and Early Modern forms of explanation arose from features of a particular historical situation; it isn’t logical or metaphysical. 16th century Aristotelian natural philosophy was routinized and degenerate, but in the 14th century it was still very much alive and fruitful in results. Natural philosophers were mathematicizing Aristotle’s principles of moving bodies. William of Heytesbury, a member of the ‘Mertonian Calculators,’ derived the mean speed theorem usually attributed to Galileo. Jean Buridan improved on Aristotle by postulating that a moving body possessed an impetus. This impetus was proportional to the object’s weight, not identical to it as in Aristotle. It was an enduring property, thus it did not require continued action to maintain it. More importantly, in Buridan’s application of impetus to freely-falling bodies it causes a change the momentum of the body: that is, like Galileo’s factor g, it was an acceleration. To be sure, on Buridan’s account objects with more mass should fall faster. But this was also true in Galileo’s earlier Pisan dynamical theory (1589), which was not a significant improvement on Buridan. It’s now reasonable to claim that the resources necessary to have produced the Scientific Revolution were available to thinkers within the Aristotelian synthesis. Thus it is merely a contingent historical fact that the New Science makes no appeal to causes.

Second, it is reasonable to suppose that, even if there are causal relations, we have no independent cognitive access to them. All we can hope for are empirically discoverable natural laws or statistical correlations. However, it is also reasonable to suppose that we do have such access. The view that we don’t was of course codified in philosophy by Hume and has become one of the deep prejudices in philosophy. Pace Hume, we observe causes quite frequently. As John Searle points out, when a car backfiring makes you jump, you experience the causal relation: you don’t need to experience two backfires to get the connection. Wittgenstein’s advice to philosophers is particularly helpful here: “Don’t think, but look!”

Third, the prevailing debate on causality concerns whether it is a relation between events or states of affairs. However, this is a symptom rather than a cause of the modern avoidance of appeal to the relation. It is a logicizing of the relation, reducing it to a species of entailment. It leaves us unsure about such fundamental issues as whether it is even a temporal relation at all.

Are these considerations a sufficient excuse for continuing to avoid causality? I think not. If there is no fundamental conflict between two fundamental styles of explanation, then causal explanations and the whole panoply of contemporary science can work together. Indeed they should.

The concept of causality I favor would make it not just a relation between events or states of affairs, but between individuals in a number of categories – including events and states of affairs. Abstractly, the properties of an individual N give it causal powers to affect, and to be affected by, other individuals. Those powers would be described dispositionally and functionally. Sometimes N’s causal powers result in effects on individual J and sometimes they don’t, depending on J’s own powers as well as features of the environment. 

So Galileo’s g does ‘cause’ an object to fall. It is a measure of an object’s disposition to accelerate. Accordingly, causes don’t ‘necessitate’. Air resistance could affect the distance the object falls in a given time. Unlike Hume, we could still say that N is being affected, still has the disposition, even though it is not manifesting it. Dispositions and functions can be said to be ‘realized’ by the micro-entities of standard science.

The advantage to this explanatory move is that the temptations toward instrumentalism and eliminativism so common in our present explanatory practices would be much diminished, if they do not vanish entirely.

Who’s with me?

Thomas Pyne
Department of Philosophy 
Sacramento State

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Explanation and illusion

This is a sequel to a post I wrote in  June called "The explanatory reductio." The point there was this: Although an explanation is an attempt to understand an accepted fact, sometimes our inability to provide an explanation becomes a reason for rejecting the 'fact' instead. If you can't explain that beautiful creature in your bed, maybe it's not your bed.  Here I offer the following observation, and provide you with some examples:

Many of the greatest intellectual insights in human history resulted from someone explaining a widely accepted fact, as a grand illusion.

1. The moon illusion

As everyone knows, the moon is larger when it appears on the horizon than when it is high in the night sky. Sometime back in human prehistory ancient people wondered: Why does the moon grow and shrink like that? One evening, while sitting at his fire after a fruitless day of hunting, the famous cave philosopher Og, had an epiphany.

Og say moon not get small. Moon only look  small. Moon like prey, get small when run away.

Og was the first to articulate the appearance/reality distinction, an incredible leap in human understanding. Later astronomers accepted Og's view that the changing size of the moon is illusory, but they rejected his explanation. They believed all celestial bodies move in perfect circles, with the earth at the exact center of their orbits.  Aristotle proposed a new explanation: The atmosphere acts as a lens, magnifiying the moon's appearance. Wrong again, as can be easily shown. Cover the moon with a quarter while it is on the horizon, and cover it again when it is high in the sky. The distance between the coin and your eye is the same. There is still no accepted explanation of this phenomenon, and there probably will not be one until we understand which of several different illusions relating to relative size and distance our brain circuitry is falling for.

2. Planetary retrograde

The powerful idea that heavenly bodies move in perfect spheres around the earth was dogged for centuries by the strange phenomenon of planetary retrograde. Long before Aristotle, astronomers from different cultures had observed that planets would sometimes start moving backwards. Apollonius and, later, Ptolemy explained the retrograde as a real phenomenon. Their theory of epicycles held that the planets did not move in simple circles, but in epicycles like this:

The epicycle is the smaller orbit, and at the bottom of the epicyclic orbit, the planet itself really does move backwards. Genius. And wrong.  One of the great insights embedded in the heliocentric system proposed by Nicholas Copernicus is that retrograde motion is an illusion that occurs when earth's orbit either overtakes, or is overtaken by, the orbits of other planets.

3: Galilean relativity

Aristotle's physics accepted as real a variety of phenomena that turn out to be illusions. One of the most important- the basis of his categorical distinction between the heavens and the earth - is that rest and uniform motion are different states of matter. For Aristotle the natural state of an object is rest; it requires no explanation. For an object to move, and to continue moving, a cause is required. This illusion was finally shattered by Galileo (the most famous early adopter of the Copernican view) who realized that motion is not a property of an object at all; it is just an artifact of the chosen reference frame. Any object that can be described as moving in one reference frame, can be described as motionless in another. Galileo's insight was ultimately codified in Newton's First Law of Motion.

4: Darwin's theory of evolution

What accounts for the design of the universe? As most philosophy students know, William Paley argued that, just as the evident design of a watch suggests the existence of a watchmaker, so the evident design of the universe suggests the existence of a universe maker. Even David Hume, who rejected the designer hypothesis as childish anthropomorphism, admitted that the design of the universe required an explanation- and that he didn't have one. Enter Charles Darwin. In the Origin of Species Darwin provided a theory of the emergence, not of design, but of the illusion of design. The illusion of design could, he proved, result from a process involving competition, reproduction and blind, natural 'selection'. Darwin's insight effectively completed the Copernican revolution, destroying the nearly universal belief that human origins and human capacities are beyond human understanding.

5: Continental drift

What Darwin did to the eternality of species, Alfred Wegener did to the immobility of continents. Until the late 20th century every schoolkid was taught that these gigantic land masses were necessarily immobile. That uncanny fit between the west coast of Africa and the East coast of South America?  Coincidence. The similar fossil distributions on adjacent coastlines? Strategically placed land bridges that have, sadly, vanished without a trace. Wegener's theory of continental drift, which hypothesized an ancient super continent called Pangaea, represented the immobility of the continents as an illusion. They simply moved too slowly for us to notice. Wegener's theory was widely and understandably ridiculed, for he proposed no mechanism. But long after Wegener's death his view was mostly vindicated by the now universally accepted theory of plate tectonics.

These episodes are exemplary, not just because the thinkers were brave or creative enough to challenge orthodoxy, but because they succeeded in developing a model that explains both the illusion and the real underlying phenomenon.  Even most who achieve this are not ultimately successful. Plato agreed with Parmenides that the reality of the physical world is an illusion.  He explained it poetically as a shadow cast by the real world of the Forms. But the shadow was a metaphor drawn from the physical world, and the perfect world of Forms turns out to exist only in our imaginations. There are many other examples of the kind I have given above, historical and contemporary, successes and failures.  Perhaps our dancers will identify some of them.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Summer of discontent: Ruminations on a hundred years of the same-old, same-old

This past August 1st marked one hundred years since the beginning of World War I. What might have remained a squabble between an empire (Austro-Hungary) and a minor neighboring state (Serbia) set into motion the domino train of mutual defense treaties that led to a world war – the first world war – the first of two world wars.

I’ve been hearing a lot this summer about airplanes, surface to air missiles, bombing raids, hostile crossings of borders into neighboring territory. This summer began with the tragic downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 over eastern Ukraine by, presumptively, Russian backed pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists. It also saw the brutal and destructive Israeli response to the Palestinian response to the Israeli settler’s response to the suspected Palestinian killing of three Israeli teenagers in June (which was itself a likely response to yet something else egregious done by Israel or Israelis, etc., etc., etc.). As this summer draws to a close, President Obama declared the US and its usual allies[1] will respond to the rise of a presumptive new Caliphate (ISIL) in what we call the Middle East with bombing raids wherever necessary. What links these events to World War I?

Irredentism and revanchism. These are 20th Century concepts many of us thought could safely be relegated to the surely-we’ve-outgrown-these-horrid-practices dustbin. Clearly, such relegation, and the optimism which supported it, was premature.

Irredentism refers to the practice of justifying unilateral reshaping of borders according to the ethnic or nationalist connections between disparate populations contained across those borders. Russia’s annexation of Crimea is an excellent example. Ethnic Russians live there. Russia should extend to wherever there are ethnic Russians. Therefore, Russia should extend to include Crimea. But there reside also nationalist Ukrainians, so one nation’s solution to inadequate borders in irredentist terms recreates the very problem for those who were thereby severed from their own national community. The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of WWI and the expansion of the German nation ahead of WWII were both expressions of irredentist claims to national unity, liberation or reunification. Borders, ever again a problem.

Revanchism (best pronounced with a hint of French inflection) refers to the practice of justifying the reclamation of lost territory, in a kind of national avenging. The challenge with revanchism is that it relies on the fiction that there is an identifiable prior settled state of affairs which has been upset in the seizure of territory by a neighbour. It also relies on the fiction that such action can heal, compensate for, or unproblematically reunify wrongly severed peoples and places. Here, the Israel-Palestine conflict serves as a perfect example of revanchism in action and of the tragedy of its pursuit. On both sides, the motivation is to regain territory taken by others. For the Israelis, it is the ancient loss of Judea, Samaria and all the rest of Greater Israel. For the Palestinians, it is the more recent run of generations of mutual and reciprocal territorial incursion, occupation, annexation, and settlement that is the legacy of the UN’s effort to compensate a people for one tragedy (the Shoah inflicted upon the Jews in Europe by Germany) by imposing a parallel tragedy on another people (the Nakba inflicted by the UN carving up British Mandate Palestine to create Israel).  Not surprisingly both terms, Shoah and Nakba, refer to the same existential catastrophe of a people being destroyed by the aspirations of another.

What this exposes is, I think, the inherent fragility of national borders and the feeling of charade we play whenever we demand that borders should be here or there or none at all.  I think it also has to do with the appeal of appealing to democratic self-determination by peoples who cannot stand each other, never have, and don’t want to continue pretending that they do. There will always be some excluded “us” trapped unjustly behind the borders with “them”.

It’s not like this problem is uniquely a Russian and Ukrainian or an Israeli and Palestinian problem…. Pick a border from any map and there you will find that border contested by some political community. Neither is it a problem of states that have recently undergone dissolution, like the USSR or Yugoslavia, or resolution, like Germany. Well, there might be one border not in dispute… the US-Canada border (though some Americans still claim manifest destiny, and some Canadians still rue the 54-40 Agreement). Ok, perhaps two such borders… add the Czech-Slovak border, which was an internal regional border made into a national border creating two new states from the old.

Clearly borders are a problem, mere lines on maps, a collective fiction. But they are also lines in the collective imagination, in the definition of a people, and in the very real actions which either affirm belonging or sting with exclusion. In the nation state, we find the curious and increasingly unstable blending of a geo-political entity with an ethno-cultural entity and healthy dose of nationalist ideology. A people in a place. A unified people in a unified place. The appeal is understandable, but the practice is troubling.

What makes a border worth respecting? As US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, recently scolded her Russian counterpart, “borders are not suggestions.”[2] But what are they, then, if not suggestions of limits, to some, and opportunity, to others? How to ensure they are not mere suggestions against an ill-tempered neighbour who believes there are compatriot nationals or fellow folk on the other side of the border clamouring for liberty or reunion and just a little bit of help?

As Cara Nine astutely asks, "If we don’t understand why territorial rights are justified in a general, principled form, then how do we know that they can be justified in any particular solution to a dispute?"[3]

This may just be the defining political question of the 21st Century. We’d better get better at answering it, lest this 21st Century become too much more a repetition of the 20th.

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

[1] Including UK, Canada, France, and Germany among increasing numbers of others. Interestingly, Iran may join the coalition.
[2] US Mission to the UN, Briefing Room Statements, transcript of remarks delivered to the UN Security Council, April 13, 2014. Available at Last Accessed 14 Sept, 2014.
[3] Cara Nine, Global Justice and Territory (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Divine action in a deterministic world

It is often suggested that unless there are gaps in our ability to give a natural explanation for an event, we cannot attribute that event to God’s agency. We see this assumption working in the traditional view of miracles, by which a miracle is understood as a violation of natural law.  The laws of nature say that one cannot walk on water; if someone walks on water, then this must be the doing of God, a supernatural agent.

Notice that belief in miracles, as violations of natural law, requires us to deny determinism.  Determinism is the view that everything that occurs in the natural world is a function of the state of the world in the past, together with the laws of nature.

Some theologians are uncomfortable with this picture of divine agency.  They want to say that God acts in the world, but are reluctant to admit that there are ever any violations of natural law.

Now this does not seem particularly difficult when it comes to God’s general agency, as that is represented by God’s creation and conservation of the universe.   But things get a bit more complicated when it comes to special divine agency.  What is that?  We might say, with Alvin Plantinga [1], that it is any activity on God’s part that is not identified with his general agency.  God’s special agency is represented in things that God does at particular times and for particular purposes, e.g. the parting of the Red Sea so that the Hebrews can escape the Egyptians.  Miracles are an example.

We may notice a certain tension here.  God’s general agency involves God’s conservation of the natural world, which must involve his conserving the laws by which that world operates.  But if God’s special agency requires him to violate these laws, it also implies a failure on God’s part to conserve the order of nature.  We might be forgiven for seeing a kind of contradiction here.

If this concern has any weight, then it would be nice to find some way of making special divine agency compatible with natural law.

To resolve this tension, some philosophers— I will refer to them as “quantum theologians”— have appealed to the principles of quantum mechanics.  Some of the events that occur at the subatomic level are non-deterministic.  For example, atoms sometimes emit light waves, but we can predict this behavior only probabilistically. There is some contemporary argument to the effect that the traditional miracles may not be violations of natural law at all, but may be manifestations of strange goings-on at the subatomic level [2].

Notice that the quantum theologians cling to the idea that special divine agency requires the world to be non-deterministic.  They hope to exploit the possibility that a non-deterministic view of the world is compatible with science.

I think quantum theology is confused for a number of reasons, but space permits me only one objection here.  I wish to deny that special divine agency requires us to suppose that the world is non-deterministic.

Let us suppose that determinism is true, and that everything that occurs in nature is a function of the state of the universe in the past, together with the (non-probabilistic) laws of nature.  Let us then consider the implications of this for human agency.  Many philosophers would say that humans cannot be held morally responsible for what they do in a deterministic world, but few would insist that determinism rules out the possibility of human action entirely.

So for example, if I intentionally light a cigar after dinner one evening, this is an instance of agency on my part.  Furthermore it seems to fall under the category of what we are calling special agency.  I am not capable of the sort of general agency that is attributed by theists to God, so it’s hard to see what else it could be.  The lighting of my cigar is something done by an agent— me— at a particular time and for a particular purpose.

Now consider a purported instance of divine agency. Suppose, for example, a child in a toy motor-car is stuck on a railroad track with a train approaching.  Because of a curve in the track, the engineer will be unable to see the child until it is too late to stop the train.  The child’s mother sees what is about to happen and cries out to God to save her baby.  At that moment, the engineer faints, releasing his grip on the control lever, and the train comes harmlessly to a stop [3]. If determinism is true, then the fainting of the engineer, and subsequent stopping of the train, has been in the cards since the beginning of the universe.  Yet there seems to be nothing standing in the way of describing this as an action on the part of God; the child’s mother may describe what has happened as an answer to her prayer. 

Of course, the stopping of the train is in conformity with natural law.  This might lead us to deny that it is a miracle. But that is not what is at issue here.  Are there any grounds for the claim that, because this event was determined to occur, it cannot be an instance of special divine agency?  I don’t see that there are. 

It is true that this event has a natural explanation.  But, under the deterministic hypothesis, my lighting of my cigar also has a natural explanation.  Yet we still describe this as an action on my part. If human agency is possible in a deterministic world, then special divine agency is, too.

It is possible that the universe is not deterministic, and that subatomic phenomena of the kind that interest the quantum theologians are not determined to occur.  But a commitment to special divine agency does not require either of these claims to be true.

David Corner
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


[1]  Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism; Chapter 3, Kindle p. 68, loc 1082; Oxford University Press, Oxford

[2] See for example Bradley Monton (2012), “God Acts in the Quantum World,” Chapter 7 in Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Religion, Volume V; Clarendon Press, Oxford

[3] This example comes from R.F. Holland (1965), "The Miraculous," American Philosophical Quarterly 2:43-51  Holland hoped to argue that the stopping of the train can be described as a miracle.  My argument does not require me to defend this claim.