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

From: Andy Blunden (
Date: Tue Jul 11 2006 - 05:51:08 PDT

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.
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.
>>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.
>>>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?
>>>>>>>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
>>>>>Global Justice Tours:
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>>Andy Blunden, for Victorian Peace Network, phone +61 3 9380 9435
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