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A short outline of the agency and interventionist accounts of causation This essay will show the transition from the anthropocentric and reductionistic agency account towards the interventionist account, which drops the reductionistic requirement for causal theories. As we shall see, the basic structure of both the agency and interventionist account are the same: they are both difference-making accounts, they are both counterfactual in nature and they show a more conceptional instead of an ontic account of causation. Still, they differ on the ontic level as the agency account sees causality as a secondary quality, where the interventionist account sees causality as primitive.
Can I intervene?
The agency account was first articulated by Von Wright (1971) and was later developed and defended by Menzies and Price. Both these theories formulate their position more or less as following: “An event A is a cause of an distinct event B if and only if it holds that for an agent to make happen A will be an effective means to bring about B.” Let us first note a number of properties of this definition. First of all, it is a reductive analysis: Both Von Wright and Menzies and Price suggest that causation can be explained in more basic ontic notions, in this case 'bringing about'. As it has been discussed whether this is a real reduction, a lot of philosophers argue that it is an important virtue for a causal account to be reductive. More strongly, philosophers have argued that a non-reductive account of causation will be uninformative (Woodward, 2008). Second, it is clear that an agent is incorporated within the account. Menzies and Price argue that this is an intuitive way of looking at causation (Menzies & Price, 1993): when we think of causation, it is often in terms of us being able to manipulate a certain situation. When for example I would like to get a nail into a piece of wood, I try to cause the nail entering the wood and I could swing a hammer onto the nail to let it enter the wood. Third, as Julian Reiss (Reiss, 2007) articulates, this account stresses the importance of the relation between experiments and causation. When I experiment, we try to hold all things equal except one value and try to find out whether we can manipulate the other. So, manipulability is at least a characteristic of both experiments and causation, according to these theories. Fourth, these accounts focus on a conceptual and a semantic analysis of causation. They try to describe what we describe when we are talking about causation. However, Menzies and Price their claim is stronger, as they state that causation is a secondary quality of the world (Menzies & Price, 1993). Fifth, and this distinguishes the account by Von Wright from that of Menzies & Price, Von Wright's account is only fit for pure deterministic systems, where Menzies & Price choose an agent probability account (Reis, 2007). For them, an event is a cause when it, when produced by an agent, would heighten the chance for the effect to occur. This addition takes into account the problems raised against systems aimed at deterministic accounts. The accounts by both Von Wright and Menzies and Price are far more elaborate than only this definition. It will be more illustrating to look at their counterarguments against the attacks launched against their accounts. As the Menzies and Price is the more mature one, I will show the arguments against their particular account.
Arguments against the agency account
There are four different arguments brought in against the agency account. First of all, it is said to be viciously circular as bringing about is itself a causal concept. When we
try to understand what 'bringing about' means, we can only explain this in terms of causing something. Menzies and Price, however, refute this for two reasons 1. First, they claim that, even if bringing about would mean causation, this doesn't have to lead to a vicious regress, as something can be 'added to the definition' of causation if the definition given adds information about the nature of causation, e.g. in the form of relations. One example could be that the notion of agent is added. Second, they suggest that we should be able to give an ostensive definition of 'bringing about', i.e. using examples. They claim that using these examples, they can convey the meaning of 'bringing about' without resorting to the meaning of causation. I do not know whether the ostensive definition would work, as causation (and therefore also bringing about) is quite a vague concept, which makes it hard to think that an ostensive definition would be able to convey the rich meaning of the concept. Their first solution is much more interesting, as it suggests an anti-reductive notion. When we accept that we have a vicious regression, we can still maintain that our definition is useful, but we clearly cannot talk of a reduction, as we fail to give a definition which explains a phenomenon fully in more basic notions. Second, the anthropocentric notion has been criticised for two reasons, being that it isn't useful in situations in which we cannot think of an agent being able to bring about certain effects and moreover that it denies any form of causation where agents cannot intervene. To counter these rebuttals, Menzies and Price rely on Von Wright's use of analogies to determine whether something is a cause in cases where it isn't clear whether an agent can intervene2. A simple example is given by them regarding tectonic plates. Normally, agents aren't able to shift tectonic plates to cause an earthquake. However, we can use a computer or a small-scale simulation of tectonic plates and check whether we could cause an earthquake by shifting tectonic plates. There are two difficulties with this solution as it stands. This theory has to show how we can see whether an analogy is valid and succeeds in 'scaling up'3(Woodward, 2008), which seems difficult at least and arbitrary at worst, and second, it is hard to see what makes this theory so different from the interventionist account. After all, when we want to keep the theory using the agent notion, it is hard to see how we can define the analogies in terms of agent manipulations. On the other hand, should we opt to abandon the requirement to define the analogies solely in terms of agent manipulations, we don't have any unique conception of causality anymore. Third, and this is basically a combination of all of the earlier rebuttals, in order to avoid the vicious regress and be genuinely reductionistic, this account has to assign a special status to the agent's actions, which is more preferred than causality. More specifically, this suggests a special status to the freedom of our action. But exactly this has been disputed in current discussions regarding free will and determinism. Even if we assign some form of freedom to the agent (e.g. due to indeterminacy), it is still generally acknowledged that a large part of our free actions are predetermined. But how then, the rebuttal continues, can human action be a more basic notion as it can be reduced to (partly) non-human causes? Furthermore, even if we would grant the benefit of the doubt to Menzies and Price and would acknowledge that there is some form of free action which isn't determined (or simply claim that causal transitivity is false, making it thereby not necessary that the cause for human action is also the cause for the effect of human action), there can still be situations in which we can change C, but thereby involuntarily also cause a change in C 2, which both have their effects on E, therefore causing a statistical correlation between C and E. Woodward gives an illuminating example of a doctor administering a drug to cause a cure of a disease. Even if a drug wouldn't work, there still a chance that there is a statistical correlation between administering the drug and the curing of the patient as placebo effects can help a patient recover (Woodward, 2008). Last, they do not give any information about how to check the validity of their counterfactuals (Woodward, 2008).
1 Menzies & Price 2009, pag. XXX 2 Menzies & Price 1993, p XXX. See also Woodward 2009 for an elaboration on this. 3 When scaling up, it is possible that causally irrelevant features in the model become causally relevant features in the real world
As we can see, this account, as it uses both probabilistic and counterfactual features, it also inherits the weaknesses of both accounts. Moreover, their emphasis on the anthropocentric nature of their account introduces some interesting but difficult questions regarding the nature of both free action and how causality can be a secondary quality.
Interventionist accounts: something intervenes
As with the Agency account, the interventionist account also holds that it is intuitive, but also that it is widely used in the sciences. Even being inspired by the non-philosophical work of computer scientist Judea Pearl and widely used in biomedical and social sciences, these interventionist accounts try to give, instead of a reductive analysis, the meaning of a causal claim (Menzies, 2009). For its analysis, it makes use of DAG's (Directed, A-cyclical Graphs) to provide a heuristical analysis. These graphs exist of events, connected by arrows to show relations, with values assigned to the probability of each of the events happening. Each of these graphical representations are said to be autonomous systems, which means rougly that it is possible to disrupt / change one of these graphs without changing all the others4. This can be described using a simple formula, being X i =Fi (Pai ,Ui), where X is the event in question, Pa the parental (Markov) causes and U the collection of other variables. Given that we artificially replace Xi with any other variable in all formulas containing Xi, according to Pearl, all other variables that change due to the change in X i should be effects of Xi.5 One particular advantage of this system is that, given the fact that we got our graph and hence our formulas right, it can distinguish between cause and effect and situations in which two effects have a common cause. Look for instance at the following graph:
Graph 1: smoking causes lung cancer In the graph above, yellow fingers and lung cancer are statistically correlated, because both are caused by smoking. However, when we only change all X3's in the formulas and check which values are directly changed, we will find that only death is an effect and not yellow fingers. We have to take care to only choose the values which are directly changed. If we e.g. would heighten the chance on lung cancer a lot, we wouldn't change smoking to make the formula X3 = F(X1,U i) correct (as lung cancer is no function of smoking; the lung cancer could e.g. be caused by asbestos). This graph is for Woodward also the key to determine the relevant counterfactuals: the counterfactual should represent the system as it is shown in the graph 6. More precisely: this means that, when my value for X3 changes, in X3', X4 should change accordingly to X4' to be counterfactually dependent7 Woodward and Hitchcock diverge from the Pearl account as they do not want to count the error variable 'Ui' in their account of causation. As the account by Woodward and Hitchcock is non-reductive in nature, instead of giving a definition of what a cause is in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, they give a definition for an intervention (Woodward 2008, Ch. 6): (M1) I must be the only cause of X; i.e., as with Pearl, the intervention must completely disrupt the causal relationship between X and its previous causes so that the value of X is
4 Woodward, 2008, Ch. 6. 5 Ibid idem. 6 Ibid idem. 7 Menzies 2009.
set entirely by I, (M2) I must not directly cause Y via a route that does not go through X as in the placebo example, (M3) I should not itself be caused by any cause that affects Y via a route that does not go through X, and (M4) I leaves the values taken by any causes of Y except those that are on the directed path from I to X to Y (should this exist) unchanged. Clausule M2 refers to the third argument against the agency account: we only capture a particular interference when whether only that interference changes (the 'ceteris paribus'-condition). Clausule M1 and M3 make sure that we have no outside interference and M4 ensures that the error-variable is left alone.
Clearing up the mess
As I described above, this solution by Woodward and Hitchcock, among others, does seem to solve at least a number of problems by the agency account. First of all, it gives quite a strong definition to determine whether a counterfactual is false. Second, it gets rid of the anthropocentric nature of the agency account, thus preventing strong metaphysical claims regarding human action and regarding the nature of causations. However, we still have a few problems left. First, there is still the problem of potentially vicious circularity: interventions are described in terms of causal concepts. According to Woodward, there are two solutions (Woodward 2008, Ch. 7 and 8), but they make more or less the same point clear: we can hold that we can have multiple causal concepts and one causal concept is explained in terms of other causal concept. Woodward distinquishes two types of causes: total causes and direct causes. An example would be the patient receiving a drug to get healthy. Suppose now for a moment that the patient has received the wrong drug: it actually damages his body. However, due to the strong will of the patient, the placebo-effect cancels out the drug effect. When we look at the total cause, the intervention (administering the drug) wasn't a cause. However, when we look at the direct cause, administering a drug is a cause (be it a negative one in this case). So, Woodward argues, it is no longer a trivial choice to choose whether the drug is a cause of the stable situation of the patient. In a similar way, we do give relations between the concepts of intervention and cause due to the conditions M1-M4 mentioned above. Second, these conditions are essential for Woodward's account to be illuminating, but as they are defined now, they seem to strict. Woodward himself acknowledges this 8, as it may well be possible to have situations we acknowledge as a cause, but which we cannot intervene as defined by the conditions described above. An example is the movement of the tides due to the gravitational attraction of the moon. It is not unlikely that we cannot find a way to move the moon without moving a larger object in place, thereby causing a 'placebo-effect' as the mass of the larger object will cause the tides. Third, a causal claim regarding the whole universe cannot be tested, as there is nothing outside to manipulate it with9. This can be particularly problematic, as a number of people want to laws of nature to be causal. As we cannot 'manipulate', this suggests that laws of nature aren't causal. Woodward responds with biting the bullet: either interventionist accounts cannot say anything regarding laws of nature or laws of nature are not causal. Last, it is possible to formulate the causal graph such that it is counter-intuitive. This example is due to Menzies10. Suppose we have an assassin and a bodyguard. The assassin wants to poison coffee for the king. However, the bodyguard overheard a talk by the assassin and therefore drops in an antidote in the coffee. A further assumption is that the antidote is on itself a poison; only when drank with the poison, the two liquids neutralise each other.
8 Woodward 2008, Ch. 11. 9 Ibid, Ch. 12. 10 Menzies 2009, Ch 4.3.
Suppose now we look only at the assassin, thereby holding fixed the bodyguard inserting the poison. Now, when the assassin wouldn't insert the poison, the king would have died. This leads to the counter-intuitive conclusion that the assassin's act saved the king. The reliance on looking only at active process (holding all other things equal) seems to have some restrictions here, but I think this can be solved by rephrasing the necessary conditions for an intervention. However, this of course can bring in again problems with too strict rules.
Although it seems to be that the interventionist can argue that a non-reductive account of causation can be insightful, there are still some problems left for the interventionist account, especially in fine-tuning the necessary conditions for an intervention such that it doesn't have problems with some cases in which especially condition M2 isn't necessary. It does solve the main problems with the agency account, especially the anthropocentric nature and related extreme claims regarding the nature of causation, however.
Menzies, P. (2009). Counterfactual Theories of Causation. In E. N. Zalta, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 .). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/entries/causation-counterfactual/. Menzies, P., & Price, H. (1993). Causation as a secondary quality. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 44, 187-203. Retrieved from http://bjps.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/44/2/187.pdf. Reiss, J. (forthcoming). Causality, an opiniated introduction (pp. 1-66). Rotterdam, 2007. Woodward, J. (2008). Causation and manipulability. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/causation-mani.
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