Thursday, 10 July 2008

Why-Questions and Minimal Causal Accounts

Ordinarily, why-questions are calls for a certain type of explanation—namely, explanations that take the form of a because-answer. For example, if we ask “why did the window break?” then possible explanations (or because-answers) include: “because it was struck by a stone”, “because of an earthquake”, or “because of a strong gust of wind”. The primary aim of a because-answer is to specify the cause (in a minimal sense to be described at present) of an event. According to this minimal account, to say that “e1 caused e2” or that “e2 took place because of e1”, is to say that there is some explanation to be had for e2 in which e1 figures importantly.

A minimal causal account may tell us that e1 explains e2, but it does not tell us how e1 explains e2. Thus, even if one has given an accurate (and perhaps completely satisfactory) because-answer to a why-question, it is still possible to pose a further how-question in response that because-answer. In this way minimal causal accounts stand proxy for more robust causal accounts in which the underlying physical laws and relevant initial conditions are specified. Such robust causal accounts provide an answer to any further how-questions and are the proper domain of the physical sciences.

I take the minimal sense of cause described above to track our quotidian, pre-theoretical use of the word ‘cause’. It should hardly come as a surprise that our quotidian use of the word ‘cause’ (or minimal causal accounts) fails to specify the underlying physical laws and relevant initial conditions that explain how one event causes another. If being able to answer the how-question were necessary for responding to everyday why-questions, then a satisfactory reply to why-questions would be unavailable to the vast majority of people who lack the technical expertise necessary to answer the how-question. To put the matter rather patronisingly, the minimal causal accounts that feature in because-answers implicate the ‘cause’ of the hoi polloi.

But if the purpose of minimal causal accounts is not to explain how one event causes another, then what other purpose could it possible serve? On the present view, the most general purpose of minimal causal accounts is to specify which event, among any number of actual or hypothetical alternatives, would actually feature in a robust causal account, were such an account to be given. For example, a because-answer would specify that it was being struck by a rock, rather than an earth quake or strong gust of wind, which will ultimately feature in a robust causal account of why the window broke. However, the minimal causal account does not say how being struck by a rock—i.e., the relevant physical laws etc.—brings it about that the glass breaks.

(For a detailed discussion of many of the issues raised in this post, see G. F. Shueler (2003), Reasons and Purposes.)

1 comment:

MR M said...

I think more needs to be said about the idea of a minimal causal account beyond the claim that it provides a "because-answer." There are plenty of explanations we can state in terms of "Because..." that we wouldn't say are causal explanations. For example, the answer to the question "Why is the set of all integers larger than the set of all prime numbers?" can be put in the because-answer form, but surely the answer to this question isn't a causal explanation. William Child suggests that we can mark out causal from non-causal explanations by whether or not what's being explained is "why something happened." This strikes me as along the right lines. Your reference to events in the fourth paragraph suggests that your thinking is implicitly along these lines, but a fuller account of the notion of a minimal causal account would need to be explicit about this I think.