Logic & Philosophy of Science Colloquium

James Woodward
California Institute of Technology

"Causation with a Human Face"

Abstract: The recent literature on causation presents us with a striking puzzle. On the one hand, (1) there has been an explosion of seemingly fruitful work in philosophy, statistics, computer science, and psychology on causal inference, causal learning, causal judgment and related topics.  This reflects the apparent usefulness of causal thinking in many of the special sciences and in common sense. On the other hand, (2) many philosophers of physics, from Russell onwards, have claimed that causal notions are absent from or at least play no foundational role in fundamental physics, and that at least some aspects of ordinary causal thinking (e.g. the asymmetry of the cause-effect relation) lack any sort of grounding in fundamental physical laws. If we also think that (3) if causal notions are appropriate and legitimate in common sense and the special sciences, these notions must play a similar role in fundamental physics, then (1), (2), and (3) appear to be (at the very least) in considerable tension with one another.
My strategy in this talk will be to explore some of the features of the systems studied by the upper level sciences and the epistemic problems that they present to us that make the application of certain causal notions and patterns of reasoning seem particularly natural and appropriate. I will suggest that these features are sometimes absent from  the systems studied in fundamental physics and that when this is so, this explains why causal notions and patterns of reasoning seem less appropriate when applied to such systems. By recognizing what is problematic in (3), we can see how (1) and (2) may be reconciled.

Friday, March 18, 2005
SST 777
3 pm

Refreshments will be served