Re: [xmca] Kevin's paper for discussion: causality

From: Emily Duvall (
Date: Tue Jul 11 2006 - 09:14:30 PDT

Hi Andy,
I think you are right on regarding the direction of the questioning -
structures are produced purposefully (short term goals or long term
goals...thinking about power here... particularly the work of Haugaard
and Gibbons) not magically outside of us. Your comments suggest that
we need to consider relationships of agency with structures. I think it
may be problematic to think about these things as if they have causes
that we can point to outside of contexts (we get into issues of
sufficient, necessary, counterfactuals, etc), particulary structures
which may have originated in one form but take on a life of their own so
to speak... as they play us as it were. This doesn't mean that it isn't
worth plunging into, just that terminology needs clarity, particularly
when it comes to loaded words... cause, effect.
The context piece is also interesting with regards to definitions of
what counts as uneducated in what circumstances. Structures such as
schooling now have wonderfully rigid frameworks for such 'things' as
disability (gee, who came up with all that) or what counts as evidence
of progress in schools (here's some fun).
~ Em

Andy Blunden wrote:

> Emily, I have no expertise to answer such a question. We really shot
> off on a tangent. Steve introduced the question of causality after
> Mike questioned the idea of the school system "producing" "uneducated
> people." I remain sceptical of the idea of structures producing
> injustice without any human agency, so I was interested in seeing what
> other people would suggest. I have also been thinking about
> "causality" recently. It just seemed to me that we were never going to
> get clarity about the "cause" of what Kevin called "symmetrical"
> outcomes unless we had some clarity about agency.
> But I can't answer your question, Emily.
> Andy
> At 07:54 AM 11/07/2006 -0400, you wrote:
>> Hi Andy,
>> What role do you see sufficient and necessary causes playing with
>> regard to "the "cause" of schools producing "uneducated" people"?
>> ~ Emily
>> Andy Blunden wrote:
>>> Emily, Steve and all ...
>>> what I was trying to get at is that "cause" is a particular concept
>>> which can be used in describing processes and in trying to
>>> understand them. Apples aside (after all we are talking of a highly
>>> reflexive object here, a country's education system), cause is
>>> connected with a certain approach to understanding a process - I
>>> don't think it makes sense to say it just exists in nature.
>>> What I meant about "unit of analysis" is that cause is a concept
>>> related to a unit of analysis which includes both the subject and
>>> object of a problem; it is, in my opinion, the hypothetical
>>> intervention the subject can make in the object to bring about an
>>> effect. "Hypothetical" because in general I think we are talking
>>> about a "thought experiment," but even a thought experiment is part
>>> of a plan to change an object and bring about an effect.
>>> So for example, we might think that it is the school principals who
>>> are the cause, and we could fix the problem by seeing new principals
>>> appointed, a testable hypothesis. I don't know. But I think "cause"
>>> is meaningless unless there is a corresponding hypotethical
>>> intervention by the subject into the object-system.
>>> So if we are talking about the "cause" of schools producing
>>> "uneducated" people, asking the question of cause leads us to a
>>> possible intervention. In my opinion, the naming of cause which
>>> does not correspond to some hypothetical intervention is
>>> hypostatising the process, reifying it, or whatever word you want to
>>> use.
>>> Andy
>>> At 12:21 AM 11/07/2006 -0400, you wrote:
>>>> Hi Steve, Andy, and all...
>>>> I have some difficulty with this statement:
>>>> "The challenge of "social" science is to apply the same methodology
>>>> to the more complex phenomena of human society and human
>>>> individuality. I believe this is what Vygotsky meant when he
>>>> called for psychology to be a "natural" science."
>>>> I believe that Vygotsky's project was a new method of science where
>>>> 'science' does not hold the baggage it does for us (well at least me)?
>>>> I also have alot of difficulty with the approach that seems to
>>>> elevate causes and effects to a particular authority.
>>>> "I see this process as more than just "defining" causality, but as
>>>> studying natural, social and psychological causes as deeply and
>>>> completely as possible - and developing the tools and units of
>>>> scientific analysis thusly."
>>>> At any rate at the risk of obsessing about apples.....
>>>> When we look at an apple we do not see the whole apple. We see it
>>>> through a particular lens... if I have chosen to discuss the apple
>>>> from a philosophical perspective, it will be a very different
>>>> discussion than the one my biologist friend might have.Indeed, what
>>>> I might say in terms of knowing the apple may well seem to suggest
>>>> that we are not talking about the same apple at all and that my
>>>> knowing conflicts with the biologist's knowing of the apple. Yet we
>>>> both know the apple. As the philosopher, I might be more interested
>>>> in fooling with what the knowing of an apple means. The biologist
>>>> may seem very reductionist in his/her view in comparison. Both may
>>>> be correct.
>>>> In other words, I think that there are certainly multiple units of
>>>> analysis to be applied to the same apple, and they may be aligned
>>>> with one or more particular ways of viewing the apple... none of
>>>> which will, in isolation, give us _the_ understanding of the apple.
>>>> However, it seems that since we are still talking about the same
>>>> apple, that the units of analysis must be compatible with each
>>>> other. Therefore, if there are units of analysis about which we can
>>>> talk about causal determinism, then it seems there must be
>>>> compatible ways of talking about the same phenomenon.
>>>> ~Emily
>>>> Steve Gabosch wrote:
>>>>> At 11:29 PM 7/6/2006 +1000, Andy Blunden wrote:
>>>>>> Yes, so "causality exists in nature" means simply that "there is
>>>>>> regularity and necessity in nature." So the idea doesn't
>>>>>> contribute anything to understanding whether a *particular*
>>>>>> phenomenon is causally related to another phenomenon, or how.
>>>>> I think it does. As I see it, the phrase "causality exists in
>>>>> nature" suggests that phenomena in nature have particular causes.
>>>>> The challenge of science is to discover the "how" - and from
>>>>> there, to go on to generalize from observations of particular
>>>>> causes and effects to formulate laws of nature, which become more
>>>>> refined as more is discovered. The challenge of "social" science
>>>>> is to apply the same methodology to the more complex phenomena of
>>>>> human society and human individuality. I believe this is what
>>>>> Vygotsky meant when he called for psychology to be a "natural"
>>>>> science.
>>>>>> Andy continued:
>>>>>> It's just a general profession of faith.
>>>>> The "faith" that guides me here is a humanist conviction that
>>>>> humanity can - if it chooses to, and I hope it will - apply
>>>>> science to its own social systems and to nature in a way that
>>>>> humans can create justice and freedom for themselves and this
>>>>> remarkable planet can be sustained. For me, the most important
>>>>> part of this little message is not just that causality *exists* in
>>>>> nature but that it implies that humanity can continue to
>>>>> *discover* these causal relations. It is a belief in humanity, if
>>>>> you will, not "faith" in a string of words or a dogma.
>>>>>> Andy also said:
>>>>>> My suggestion is that we have to approach the definition of
>>>>>> causality in just the same way that we approach concepts of
>>>>>> psychology, with a mind to a "unit of analysis."
>>>>> I think this is a very good suggestion, Andy. But I think units
>>>>> of analysis need to be based, in part, on the particular theories
>>>>> of causation of each realm under study. This points to an
>>>>> interesting feature of science, which seeks to invent new units of
>>>>> analysis as new causes are discovered. Another consequence of
>>>>> this approach to causality is a theory of what "causes" causation
>>>>> itself needs to be developed. Here is my general take. The
>>>>> dialectical materialists suggest that materiality and motion are
>>>>> inherent in nature, that causation itself is inherent in the
>>>>> universe. The alternatives end up being a supernatural
>>>>> explanation of general causation, such as Hegel's theory of the
>>>>> absolute idea, or a fully skeptical outlook, such as Hume's denial
>>>>> of causality altogether. But a dialectical materialist ontology
>>>>> of causation is only a beginning. How the universe caused the
>>>>> Milky Way, how the Milky Way caused the solar system, how the sun
>>>>> and the earth caused life on earth, how humanity grew out of the
>>>>> evolution of life on earth, how human society has developed, how
>>>>> society creates culture, how culture creates people, how
>>>>> individuals develop ... as well as how all these "higher" levels
>>>>> of development act "downward" and become huge causal processes
>>>>> themselves ... these are all big questions of science, of its
>>>>> studies of causation at every level of existence, and of its
>>>>> creation of units of analysis appropriate for studies of causes at
>>>>> each level. I see this process as more than just "defining"
>>>>> causality, but as studying natural, social and psychological
>>>>> causes as deeply and completely as possible - and developing the
>>>>> tools and units of scientific analysis thusly.
>>>>> I should add that I think the study of causes is the central but
>>>>> is by no means the sole component of science. Qualitative and
>>>>> quantitative descriptions are also huge parts of scientific work.
>>>>> Imagination is still another essential component. And as Andy
>>>>> points out, minding units of analysis is also essential. But, in
>>>>> my opinion, these endeavors become rudderless without the central
>>>>> study of the causes of things to guide the way forward.
>>>>> - Steve
>>>>>> At 06:04 AM 6/07/2006 -0700, Steve wrote:
>>>>>>> Hi Andy. I think the phrase "causality exists in nature" means
>>>>>>> that necessity and regularity exist in nature, and therefore,
>>>>>>> with investigation, can be generalized into scientific laws and
>>>>>>> principles. This question of the existence of causality in
>>>>>>> nature is not unrelated to the question whether lawfulness
>>>>>>> exists in nature, which we kicked around a year or two ago here
>>>>>>> on xmca. It most certainly isn't my purpose to terminate the
>>>>>>> discussion of causality by beginning with the idea it exists -
>>>>>>> rather, I see this as a solid starting point. Nor am I
>>>>>>> suggesting causality is merely an explanation - I am suggesting
>>>>>>> it is a fact, which of course becomes integrated into
>>>>>>> explanations. All of what I am saying here is very basic to the
>>>>>>> scientific method. Your point on competition is interesting. I
>>>>>>> would agree with the statement that competition exists in nature
>>>>>>> - but the cause-effect statement "therefore Man is competitive"
>>>>>>> does not necessarily follow for me. To my mind, that would be a
>>>>>>> reductionist-biological causal explanation that excludes the
>>>>>>> necessary conditions of human society that must be taken into
>>>>>>> account to understand competition between humans - and the
>>>>>>> possible conditions which could eliminate it. I am curious,
>>>>>>> Andy, how perhaps you, and anyone else - how any scientist,
>>>>>>> natural, social or both - can conceptualize nature, not to
>>>>>>> mention society, without the idea that causality exists. I
>>>>>>> still plan to dig back into Kevin's paper and look for aspects
>>>>>>> of causal relations he explicates to see if this helps
>>>>>>> understand his comparisons and insights. Perhaps some of our
>>>>>>> discussion of causality could move in that direction, since
>>>>>>> Kevin's investigation arena is especially familiar and relevant
>>>>>>> to xmca discussions.
>>>>>>> - Steve
>>>>>>> At 01:53 PM 7/6/2006 +1000, Andy Blunden wrote:
>>>>>>>> But Steve, exactly what does it mean to say that "causality
>>>>>>>> exists in nature." There is a trivial level at which it is just
>>>>>>>> stupid to deny it, but if your are, for example, talking about
>>>>>>>> alternative means of explaining or understanding the world,
>>>>>>>> comparing emergence, chance-and-necessity, realised possibility
>>>>>>>> and causality, for example, how can you just terminate the
>>>>>>>> discussion by suggesting that one such explanation or
>>>>>>>> rationale, i.e. causality, simply "exists in Nature"? Surely
>>>>>>>> this is no better than saying that competition exists in Nature
>>>>>>>> therefore Man is competitive?
>>>>>>>> Andy
>>>>>>>> At 08:01 PM 5/07/2006 -0700, Steve Gabsoch wrote:
>>>>>>>>> Emily, how interesting that you bring up Mario Bunge. At the
>>>>>>>>> July 4 BBQ I just went to I got into a conversation with a
>>>>>>>>> retired philosophy of science professor who mentioned the book
>>>>>>>>> you did as an excellent book on the history of science. I
>>>>>>>>> ordered it from Amazon just last night. Small world, eh?
>>>>>>>>> The quotes you offer are interesting. What is Bunge's
>>>>>>>>> position on causality itself? Speaking to the latter quote
>>>>>>>>> you provide, I agree, the philosophical positions of
>>>>>>>>> determinism and indeterminism differ precisely over how to
>>>>>>>>> understand causality, with Hume famously occupying the extreme
>>>>>>>>> position on indeterminancy and denying that causality exists
>>>>>>>>> at all.
>>>>>>>>> Fundamentalists are a likely candidates for the extreme
>>>>>>>>> position of determinism at the other end, with their certainty
>>>>>>>>> that God determines and therefore causes everything. The
>>>>>>>>> dialectical materialist approach, which I am most attracted
>>>>>>>>> to, advocates including the complex dialectical relationship
>>>>>>>>> of chance and necessity in considerations of causality,
>>>>>>>>> overcoming many of the simplistic and mechanistic conceptions
>>>>>>>>> associated with plain or "vulgar" determinism that reduce
>>>>>>>>> complex events to simplistic, linear causal explanations. The
>>>>>>>>> classical Marxist approach also criticizes indeterminist
>>>>>>>>> theories of causality, which tend to range from denying that
>>>>>>>>> causality exists in nature to expressing uncertainty about
>>>>>>>>> whether this is so. In addition to deepening their
>>>>>>>>> philosophical understanding of chance and necessity in natural
>>>>>>>>> (not to mention social) events and processes, as science and
>>>>>>>>> mathematics continue to progress, some modern classical
>>>>>>>>> Marxists are beginning to integrate emergentist theories in
>>>>>>>>> their explanations of causality, just as Engels sought to
>>>>>>>>> integrate the then new theories of the transference of energy
>>>>>>>>> into dialectical materialism. I find emergentist models and
>>>>>>>>> conceptions of causality compelling and see promise in these
>>>>>>>>> efforts.
>>>>>>>>> If a theory of causality - emanating from a philosophical
>>>>>>>>> position on determinism/indeterminism - is necessary to
>>>>>>>>> proceed in social science, it could be seen as logical to
>>>>>>>>> begin with taking a look at whether causality exists in
>>>>>>>>> nature, independent of humans. It seems to me that it does.
>>>>>>>>> What are your thoughts?
>>>>>>>>> Best,
>>>>>>>>> - Steve
>>>>>>>>> At 08:57 AM 7/5/2006 -0400, Emily wrote:
>>>>>>>>>> Hi Steve,
>>>>>>>>>> Bunge did some great theorizing on the principle of
>>>>>>>>>> determinancy which you might find interesting if you haven't
>>>>>>>>>> looked at it. "The principle of determinancy, often mistaken
>>>>>>>>>> for the law of causation, is the commn ground of all forms of
>>>>>>>>>> scientific determinism (from which fatalism is excluded,
>>>>>>>>>> since it involves supernaturalistic elements violating the
>>>>>>>>>> genetic principle). To reduce determinism to causal
>>>>>>>>>> determinism is to have either a poor opinion of the resources
>>>>>>>>>> of nature and culture, or too high an opinion of
>>>>>>>>>> philosophical theories. Those who assign to causality the
>>>>>>>>>> exclusive appurtenance of characteristics that are actually
>>>>>>>>>> shared by all kinds of scientific determinism either fail to
>>>>>>>>>> resist the attacks of indeterminism and irrationalism or - to
>>>>>>>>>> the extent to which they succeed in the defense -
>>>>>>>>>> inadvertently clothe noncausal types of determination in a
>>>>>>>>>> causal language" (Causality and Modern Science, 352). For
>>>>>>>>>> Bunge, the causal principle "is a general hypothesis subsumed
>>>>>>>>>> under the universal principle of determinancy". More to think
>>>>>>>>>> about?
>>>>>>>>>> Emily
>>>>>>>>>> Steve Gabosch wrote:
>>>>>>>>>>> Mike raises a really interesting challenge, which is to
>>>>>>>>>>> relate this high level discussion of causality to Kevin's
>>>>>>>>>>> paper, which I am thinking about. Kevin's paper does not
>>>>>>>>>>> specifically discuss theories of causality, but seems to
>>>>>>>>>>> encounter different views of causality in its general
>>>>>>>>>>> discussion of cognitivist teaching strategies versus
>>>>>>>>>>> cognitive apprenticeship, and - this needs to be looked into
>>>>>>>>>>> more carefully - may also be encountering different views on
>>>>>>>>>>> causality in the discussion of symmetry - Kevin's argument
>>>>>>>>>>> that the cognitive apprenticeship approach to learning needs
>>>>>>>>>>> to explore *symmetrical* explanations of learning by going
>>>>>>>>>>> beyond studies of communities of practice that are
>>>>>>>>>>> relatively benign and homogeneous. What conceptions about
>>>>>>>>>>> causality are implied in Kevin's symmetrical approach, and
>>>>>>>>>>> how are they different from approaches that are satisfied
>>>>>>>>>>> with asymmetrical explanations?
>>>>>>>>>>> I am glad Emily brought up Hume, and her discussion of
>>>>>>>>>>> dynamic systems theory and emergentism are also very useful
>>>>>>>>>>> - as is Ana's discussion of Prigogine. There is sure a lot
>>>>>>>>>>> packed into this little word, "causality"!
>>>>>>>>>>> Hume's theory of causality (the Wikipedia article on Hume
>>>>>>>>>>> has a useful section on this) has been an important
>>>>>>>>>>> discussion piece in philosophy for several centuries. Hume
>>>>>>>>>>> denied causality exists in nature - he claimed it was an
>>>>>>>>>>> illusion created by human minds because we *expect* certain
>>>>>>>>>>> things to happen based on our experiences. Consistent with
>>>>>>>>>>> his skepticist philosophy, Hume argued that we can never
>>>>>>>>>>> really know how things happened or will happen, just that we
>>>>>>>>>>> think they did or will. Hume flatly denied the existence of
>>>>>>>>>>> causes and effects being necessary and determined. This
>>>>>>>>>>> questions of whether causality actually exists in nature at
>>>>>>>>>>> all and when can causes be conceptualized as necessary and
>>>>>>>>>>> determined seem like some of many important issues to
>>>>>>>>>>> address in developing a CHAT approach to causality in
>>>>>>>>>>> exploring the causes of human development and activity.
>>>>>>>>>>> Interesting stuff, eh?
>>>>>>>>>>> - Steve
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