3.05.2006

Causation

In the second chapter of The Cement of the Universe, J.L. Mackie tries to unpack our concept of causation. His claim is that statements about causation are statements about necessity. The only kind of sufficiency that Mackie finds in causation is a weak sufficiency, ‘given the circumstances if x occurs, so will y.’ What he denies is that in calling something a cause we require anything about strong sufficiency, ‘given the circumstances, if y had not been going to occur, x would not have occurred.’ The idea is that strong sufficiency generally holds of causation, but it is not required for recognition of causation.

He uses the following intuition pump to try and persuade his readers. We are to imagine an indeterministic slot machine which may or may not give out a chocolate bar upon a coin being inserted. Whether or not the chocolate bar appears is entirely a matter of chance once the coin is inserted. In normal circumstances it is necessary to put a coin into the machine to get a chocolate, but it is not sufficient.

Imagine that you put in coin and receive a chocolate – lucky you. Mackie believes that in such a case we are inclined to say that inserting the coin caused the chocolate to appear. In this case, inserting the coin was weakly sufficient for receiving the chocolate, but it was not strongly sufficient: in the circumstances, if you did not receive a chocolate it would not mean that you had not inserted a coin.

I am totally not convinced that we would call the insertion of a coin a cause of receiving the chocolate in such a case. Does anyone else share my sentiments?

4 comments:

Tuft said...

What type of chocolate bar is it?
I would agree that a person could find a stronger sufficiently cause than putting the coin in. I believe the cause would be the mechanism that determines whether a candy bar is given or not. My own two cents.

jon said...

tuft, I think it has to be a Snickers bar if we are supposed to view it as any kind of prize.
I don't think the event of receiving the chocolate bar has a cause at all. Here's why I don't think it can be the mechanism either. I think that a roll of the dice is the cause of what number comes up of the dice since what number comes up seems to be a product of the exact type of roll that was given and the environment. I don't think the same is true for the slot machine. If it is a truly indeterminate process, then nothing about the input (including when it happened) has anything to do with whether there is an output. I just am demanding that strong sufficiency is a requirement of a cause, and it does not hold for the mechanism since if there was no chocolate bar, the mechanism still could have opperated exactly as it did (since it is a truly indeterminate device). Mackie's analogy is between this machine and free will. He thinks we have causal explanations in the machine and also of human action even if we are free for similar reasons. I think that if we view the machine in that way it is even clearer that the output is not the result of a cause (though there are some causal processes taking place in the machine).

Tuft said...

Jon,
My scientific mind struggles to shake free from Newtonian Determinism. I have an extremely difficult time thinking of something without a cause excepting of course the divine. As a scientist we look for causes for every happenstance in nature. That is because by definition a scientific experiment should be repeatable reproducing the same effects. This begs causal relations. (Which by the way are completely different from casual physical relations with a girl.) So I think we come at this problem with a different viewpoint alas we are in agreement that the candy bar must be a Snickers.

jon said...

Well apparently I'm in quite the minority. Those polled in class saw the insertion of a coin as a cause of the chocolate bar. I guess they see it as enough that they is a continuous physical chain linking the two. I'm still not convinced.