On the dispensibility of causes


John D Norton wrote “Causation as folk science” in 2003, a piece which highlights the limited role of Aristotlean and Kantian causation in modern science, something which I’ve felt for many years. My perspective is that there’s nothing cause-and-effect in any system or model which exhibits coupling. The Lotka-Volterra predator-prey model is a typical one, and to the degree predators and prey act in accordance with this model, it’s difficult to see causation in their behavior.

Some people are shocked at this idea, thinking that there is a continuity of method shared among mathematics, law, logic, history, essayists, and science. I don’t know why their reaction is so strong, but it may be that the kinds of systems that cause-and-effect is just insufficient to analyze are rare in the fields with which they are familiar. Also, it may be analysis of such systems is judiciously avoided, since the tools of cause-and-effect are not up to the task.

Norton quotes Bertrand Russell’s 1913 “On the notion of cause“:

All philosophers, of every school, imagine that causation is one of the fundamental axioms or postulates of science, yet, oddly enough, in advanced sciences such as gravitational astronomy, the word ’cause’ never occurs … The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously
supposed to do no harm.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a detailed spread on the question. By the way, that online encyclopedia is really excellent, and deserves my and your financial support, something I try to do.

About hypergeometric

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