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Causality and Explanation

Causality and Explanation

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Causality and Explanation
Wesley C. Salmon
, University Professor of Philosophy, University of PittsburghBrings together 26 of Salmon's essays, including 7 that have never before been publishedand others that are difficult to find. Part I (Introductory Essays: Causality, Determinism,and Explanation) comprises five essays that presuppose no formal training in philosophyof science and form a background for subsequent essays. Parts II (Scientific Explanation)and III (Causality) contain Salmon's seminal work on these topics. The essays in Part II present aspects of the evolution of the author's thought about scientific explanation, andinclude critical examination of the claim that explanations are arguments and a carefullyreasoned defense of explanatory asymmetry. Those in Part III develop the details of thetheory sketched in Ch. 1. This theory identifies causal connections with physical processes that transmit causal influence from one space-time location to another, and itincorporates probabilistic features of causality, keeping open the possibility that causalityoperates in indeterministic contexts. Part IV (Concise Overviews) offers survey articlesthat discuss advanced material but remain accessible to those outside philosophy of science. Essays in Part V (Applications to Other Disciplines: Archaeology andAnthropology, Astrophysics and Cosmology, and Physics) address specific issues, in particular, scientific disciplines, including the applicability of various models of explanation.
Preface
 Having worked actively on scientific explanation for more than thirty years, I recentlydiscovered that it is a sexy topic. I use the term “sexy” in its nonsexual sense. What Imean is that a huge federally funded project involving billions of dollars was defended on philosophical grounds, namely, that by aiding scientists in explaining natural phenomena,it would lead to deeper understanding of our universe. In 1987 Nobel laureate physicistSteven Weinberg testified before the U.S. Congress regarding funding of thesuperconducting super collider (SSC) on that basis. Later on (1992), while thecontinuation of its funding was under consideration by Congress, Weinberg published animportant and influential book,
 Dreams of a Final Theory
, in which he tried to show whythe SSC would be worth the additional investment. Regrettably, this project was scuttledafter it was undertaken and after enormous amounts of labor and money had already beenexpended on it. The final essay in this collection, “Dreams of a Famous Physicist: AnApology for Philosophy of Science,” offers a philosophical analysis of this challengingwork. Although I thoroughly agree with Weinberg's scientific goals, I take strongexception to his explicitly declared attitudes toward philosophy of science. I find thistreatment of scientific explanation deeply flawed.My point of departure for this whole collection lies in the eighteenth-centuryEnlightenment, more specifically, in David Hume's epoch-making critique of causality. Inthe last decade of the twentieth century, we have, I believe, taken significant steps towardan actual solution of the fundamental problems he posed concerning the nature of causality— i.e., toward understanding the kinds of connections that link causes and
 
effects. The initial essay, “A New Look at Causality,” offers a preview of the issuesdeveloped in greater detail in subsequent essays, especially those in Part III. As I pointout in the Introduction, there is an obvious and basic relationship between the concepts of causality and explanation. To a surprising extent, this relationship has been ignored,denied, or severely underrated in much of the twentieth-century philosophical literatureon scientific explanation.Even more surprising to the modern reader, I imagine, is the fact that the very existenceor possibility of scientific explanation was denied by many outstanding philosophers andscientists at the beginning of the twentieth century. Today it is widely agreed that one of the chief aims of scientific endeavor— if not
the
principal goal— is to facilitate our understanding of the universe in which we live and of our place in it. To my mind this isone of the greatest philosophical achievements of the century. The fifth essay, “TheImportance of Scientific Understanding,” elaborates this theme. Let us hope that thelesson is not ignored as we face global problems in the twenty-first century.The essays contained herein were written over a period of many years, but they are not presented chronologically. Those in Part I are genuinely introductory. They are notsimple, but they should be accessible to readers who are seriously interested in thesubject. The essays in Parts II, “Scientific Explanation,” and III, “Causality,” are attemptsat substantive contributions to these two subjects. They represent my efforts over a periodof two decades (1975–1995) to come to terms with the fundamental problems associatedwith causality and explanation, including the development of ideas on probabilisticcausality that fit harmoniously with my views on causal and statistical explanation. Theessays in Part IV, “Concise Overviews,” are survey articles containing more technicaldetails and, therefore, more accurate summaries of the topics they treat. They can be seenas highly condensed versions of the main themes of 
Scientific Explanation and theCausal Structure of the World 
(Salmon, 1984b) and
 Four Decades of Scientific Explanation
(Salmon, 1990b). The essays in Part V address specific issues in particular scientific disciplines, namely, archaeology and anthropology, astrophysics andcosmology, and physics. They aim to show that this area of philosophy of science is notirrelevant to the sciences. Because I am not so vain as to suppose that every reader of this book will want to read every essay, brief abstracts of the essays appear at the beginningof the parts in which they appear. I hope these will help the reader pick and chooseaccording to his or her particular background and interests.Seven of the essays (essays 1, 5, 17, 19, 24–26) are previously unpublished; theremainder appeared in a variety of places. In those that were published elsewhere, I havenot hesitated to make slight revisions and corrections to improve the grammar and style,including an effort to make the material reasonably gender-neutral. I have enclosedsubstantial insertions in square brackets.When I began serious work on this book, I was literally at sea. While on sabbatical leavefrom Pittsburgh, I took my laptop computer on the SS
Universe
, encircling the globe in ahundred days. As a member of the immediate family of Merrilee Salmon, who spent theterm teaching in the Semester-at-Sea program, I enjoyed a leisure that was both excitingand conducive to work. I am most grateful to her for this opportunity and also to BillSoffa, academic dean, for many stimulating conversations on philosophy of science. Ispent most of the academic year 1995–1996 in Konstanz, Germany, as a recipient of anAlexander von Humboldt Foundation Award that enabled me to do most of the remainder 
 
of the project. I should like to express my deep gratitude to the Humboldt Foundation for the support of my research, to Gereon Wolters, who nominated me, and to the Universityof Konstanz, which extended all kinds of professional courtesies. By virtue of theHumboldt Award, I had the opportunity to present lectures at several institutions inGermany, where I greatly benefited from informed and stimulating discussion. Mywarmest thanks go also to my esteemed colleague John Earman, who, during periods between our travels, enlightened me on topics related to determinism and indeterminismin classical and modern physics. Among my many debts to my wife, Merrilee, is the factthat she has given me all of the substantive material on archaeology and anthropology,which makes up an important part of the essays in this book, particularly essays 21–24. Iwish also to thank Hana Novak for elegantly rendering all of the figures, Kathy Rivet for indispensable secretarial assistance, and Charlotte Broome for expertly compiling theindex. Expressions of gratitude to many other persons are found in the individual essays.W.C.S.
 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
May 1997
Contents
Introduction 3Part I. Introductory Essays 111. A New Look at Causality 132. Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Science 253. Comets, Pollen, and Dreams Some Reflections on Scientific Explanation504. Scientific Explanation 685. The Importance of Scientific Understanding 79Part II. Scientific Explanation 936. A Third Dogma of Empiricism 957. Causal and Theoretical Explanation 1088. Why Ask, “Why?”? 1259. Deductivism Visited and Revisited 14210. Explanatory Asymmetry 16411. Van Fraassen on Explanation 178Part III. Causality 191

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