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

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Sun Jul 09 2006 - 21:02:29 PDT

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?
>>>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?
>>>>- 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?
>>>>>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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>Andy Blunden, for Victorian Peace Network, phone +61 3 9380 9435
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