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Instead, he developed a new account which he called the Causal Mechanical CM model of explanation—an account which is similar in both content and spirit to so-called process theories of causation of the sort defended by philosophers like Philip Dowe The CM model employs several central ideas.


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A causal process is a physical process, like the movement of a baseball through space, that is characterized by the ability to transmit a mark in a continuous way. Intuitively, a mark is some local modification to the structure of a process—for example, a scuff on the surface of a baseball or a dent an automobile fender. A process is capable of transmitting a mark if, once the mark is introduced at one spatio-temporal location, it will persist to other spatio-temporal locations even in the absence of any further interaction.

In this sense the baseball will transmit the scuff mark from one location to another.

Scientific Explanation

Similarly, a moving automobile is a causal process because a mark in the form of a dent in a fender will be transmitted by this process from one spatio-temporal location to another. Causal processes contrast with pseudo-processes which lack the ability to transmit marks. An example is the shadow of a moving physical object. The intuitive idea is that, if we try to mark the shadow by modifying its shape at one point for example, by altering a light source or introducing a second occluding object , this modification will not persist unless we continually intervene to maintain it as the shadow occupies successive spatio-temporal positions.

In other words, the modification will not be transmitted by the structure of the shadow itself, as it would in the case of a genuine causal process. We should note for future reference that, as characterized by Salmon, the ability to transmit a mark is clearly a counterfactual notion, in several senses. To begin with, a process may be a causal process even if it does not in fact transmit any mark, as long as it is true that if it were appropriately marked, it would transmit the mark.

Moreover, the notion of marking itself involves a counterfactual contrast—a contrast between how a process behaves when marked and how it would behave if left unmarked. Although Salmon, like Hempel, has always been suspicious of counterfactuals, his view at the time that he first introduced the CM model was that the counterfactuals involved in the characterization of mark transmission were relatively unproblematic, in part because they seemed experimentally testable in a fairly direct way.

Nonetheless the reliance of the CM model, as originally formulated, on counterfactuals shows that it does not completely satisfy the Humean strictures described above. In subsequent work, described in Section 4.

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The other major element in Salmon's model is the notion of a causal interaction. A casual interaction involves a spatio-temporal intersection between two causal processes which modifies the structure of both—each process comes to have features it would not have had in the absence of the interaction. A collision between two cars that dents both is a paradigmatic causal interaction. Nonetheless, it seems clear enough how the intuitive idea is meant to apply to specific examples. Suppose that a cue ball, set in motion by the impact of a cue stick, strikes a stationary eight ball with the result that the eight ball is put in motion and the cue ball changes direction.

The impact of the stick also transmits some blue chalk to the cue ball which is then transferred to the eight ball on impact. The cue stick, the cue ball, and the eight ball are causal processes, as is shown by the transmission of the chalk mark, and the collision of the cue stick with the cue ball and the collision of the cue and eight balls are causal interactions.

Salmon's idea is that citing such facts about processes and interactions explains the motion of the balls after the collision; by contrast, if one of these balls casts a shadow that moves across the other, this will be causally and explanatorily irrelevant to its subsequent motion since the shadow is a pseudo-process.

Epistemological Problems of Perception (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

This explanation proceeds by deriving that motion from information about their masses and velocity before the collision, the assumption that the collision is perfectly elastic, and the law of the conservation of linear momentum. We usually think of the information conveyed by this derivation as showing that it is the mass and velocity of the balls, rather than, say, their color or the presence of the blue chalk mark, that is explanatorily relevant to their subsequent motion.

However, it is hard to see what in the CM model allows us to pick out the linear momentum of the balls, as opposed to these other features, as explanatorily relevant. Part of the difficulty is that to express such relatively fine-grained judgments of explanatory relevance that it is linear momentum rather than chalk marks that matters we need to talk about relationships between properties or magnitudes and it is not clear how to express such judgments in terms of facts about causal processes and interactions.

Both the linear momentum and the chalk mark communicated to the cue ball by the cue stick are marks transmitted by the spatio-temporally continuous causal process consisting of the motion of the cue ball. Both marks are then transmitted via an interaction to the eight ball. There appears to be nothing in Salmon's notion of mark transmission or the notion of a causal process that allows one to distinguish between the explanatorily relevant momentum and the explanatorily irrelevant blue chalk mark. Ironically, as Hitchcock goes on to note, a similar observation may be made about the birth control pills example 2.

Spatio-temporally continuous causal processes that transmit marks as well as causal interactions are at work when male Mr. Jones ingests birth control pills—the pills dissolve, components enter his bloodstream, are metabolized or processed in some way, and so on. Similarly, spatio-temporally continuous causal processes albeit different processes are at work when female Ms. Jones takes birth control pills.

However, the pills are irrelevant to Mr. Jones non-pregnancy, and relevant to Ms. Jones' non-pregnancy. Again, it looks as though the relevance or irrelevance of the birth control pills to Mr. Jones' failure to become pregnant cannot be captured just by asking whether the processes leading up to these outcomes are causal processes in Salmon's sense. A similar point holds for the hexed salt example 2. So while mark transmission may well be a criterion that correctly distinguishes between causal processes and pseudo-processes , it does not, as it stands, provide the resources for distinguishing those features or properties of a causal process that are causally or explanatorily relevant to an outcome and those features that are irrelevant.

leondumoulin.nl/language/superheroes/catalogue-of-museum-of.php A second set of worries has to do with the application of the CM model to systems which depart in various respects from simple physical paradigms such as the collision described above. There are a number of examples of such systems. Second, there are a number of examples from the literature on causation that do not involve physically interesting forms of action at a distance but which arguably involve causal interactions without intervening spatio-temporally continuous processes or transfer of energy and momentum from cause to effect.

Many philosophers have been reluctant to accept this assessment. Most explanations in disciplines like biology, psychology and economics fall under this description, as do a number of straightforwardly physical explanations. Salmon appears to regard putative explanations based on at least the first of these generalizations as not explanatory because they do not trace continuous causal processes—he thinks of the individual molecules as causal processes but not the gas as a whole. The usual statistical mechanical treatment, which Salmon presumably would regard as explanatory, does not attempt to do this.

Instead, it makes certain general assumptions about the distribution of molecular velocities and the forces involved in molecular collisions and then uses these, in conjunction with the laws of mechanics, to derive and solve a differential equation the Boltzmann transport equation describing the overall behavior of the gas. This treatment abstracts radically from the details of the causal processes involving particular individual molecules and instead focuses on identifying higher level variables that aggregate over many individual causal processes and that figure in general patterns that govern the behavior of the gas.

This example raises a number of questions. Just what does the CM model require in the case of complex systems in which we cannot trace individual causal processes, at least at a fine-grained level?

How exactly does the causal mechanical model avoid the disastrous conclusion that any successful explanation of the behavior of the gas must trace the trajectories of individual molecules? Does the statistical mechanical explanation described above successfully trace causal processes and interactions or specify a causal mechanism in the sense demanded by the CM model, and if so, what exactly does tracing causal processes and interactions involve or amount to in connection with such a system? As matters now stand both the CM model and the process theories of causation that are its more recent descendants are incomplete.

There is another aspect of this example that is worthy of comment. Even if, per impossible , an account that traced individual molecular trajectories were to be produced, there are important respects in which it would not provide the sort of explanation of the macroscopic behavior of the gas that we are likely to be looking for—and not just because such an account would be far too complex to be followed by a human mind. This information is certainly explanatorily relevant to the macroscopic behavior of the gas and we would like our account of explanation to accommodate this fact.

What's Related

Very roughly, given the laws governing molecular collisions, one can show that almost all i. A similar point holds for explanations of the behavior of other sorts of complex systems, such as those studied in biology and economics. Consider the standard explanation, in terms of an upward shift of the supply curve, with an unchanged demand curve, for the increase in the price of oranges following a freeze. Underlying the behavior of this market are individual spatio-temporally continuous causal processes and interactions in Salmon's sense—there are a myriad of individual transactions in which money in some form is exchanged for physical goods, all of which involve transfers of matter or energy, there is exchange of information about intentions or commitments to buy or sell at various prices, all of which must take place in some physical medium and involve transfers of energy, and so on.

However, it also seems plain that producing a full description of these processes supposing for the sake of argument that it was possible to do this will produce little or no insight into why these systems behave as they do. It is also the case that a great deal of the information contained in such a description will be irrelevant to the behavior we are trying to explain, for the same reason that a detailed description of the individual molecular trajectories will contain information that is irrelevant to the behavior of the gas.

For example, while the detailed description of the individual causal processes involved in the operation of the market for oranges presumably will describe whether individual consumers purchase oranges by cash, check, or credit card, whether information about the freeze is communicated by telephone or email, and so on, all of this is to a first approximation irrelevant to the equilibrium price—given the supply and demand curves, the equilibrium price will be the same as long as there is a market in which consumers are able to purchase oranges by some means, information about the freeze and about prices is available to buyers and sellers in some form, and so on.

In fact, as the above examples illustrate, the requirements that Salmon imposes on causal processes-and in particular the requirement of spatio-temporal continuity—often seem to lead us away from the right level of description.

1. The Problem of the External World

The level at which the spatio-temporal continuity constraint is most obviously respected the level at which, e. In more recent work e. In this new theory which is influenced by the conserved process theory of causation of Dowe Dowe, , Salmon defined a causal process as a process that transmits a non-zero amount of a conserved quantity at each moment in its history. Conserved quantities are quantities so characterized in physics—linear momentum, angular momentum, charge, and so on. A causal interaction is an intersection of world lines associated with causal processes involving exchange of a conserved quantity.