Unpicking Confused Causation with Massimo Pigliucci

I have many times left hanging the idea that causation is seriously weird, if you get down to looking closely at what we really mean or try to explain how it works.

“… important assumptions about time and causality at base – seriously weird concepts when you research beyond common sense – a recurring issue of mine …” [Already “recurring” back in 2006]

In fact it came up again just yesterday as I was giving my talk on the reality of our conscious will to the Teesside Humanists. (More on that later, but my topic has been Dan Dennett’s latest evolutionary explanations of consciousness in “Bacteria to Bach and Back”.)

Like many philosophical conundrums, what you mean and the definitions you use, leave you with choices but precious few firm conclusions. Here Stoic Massimo Pigliucci shares his (technical) slides on causation at the “Cause and Process in Evolution” 2017 conference at KLI Vienna these past few days. Massimo is providing the philosophical help to scientists in the same way I see Dan doing, though I don’t see any Dennett in Massimo’s paper or anywhere in #CAPIE2017 ?

Firstly I have to say I agree with Pigliucci that Philosophy and Science must be seen as “overlapping magisteria” – the essence of my “good fences make good neighbours” message – we can draw definitional lines in the sand around our fields of interest, but the boundaries have to be porous and flexible enough for proper collaborative progress. Scientists dissing philosophy and building defensive walls helps no-one. Philosophy has useful thinking tools, to use Dennett’s language.

Also agree with Pigliucci, after Ernst Mayr, that

“Ultimate” causes are no more ultimate than “proximate” ones. Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (*) is an expansion [dare I say, evolution], but not a radical revision or rejection, of the (so-called) Modern Synthesis [and (so-called) Deductive Nomological views?].

Can’t help thinking that controversy around group selection effects could also be resolved by such enlightened thinking. His list of (example) areas of debate where philosophy and science really need each other is also spot on:

  • Species concepts in biology
  • Definitions and uses of “gene” [and “meme” I’d say]
  • Discussions of the concept of race [and cultural / religious “tribes” I’d say]
  • Nature of evolutionary theory
  • Epistemic limits of evolutionary psychology, medical research, neuroscience, social science
  • Neuroscience of consciousness
  • (Metaphysical) interpretations of quantum mechanics
  • Desirability of “post-empirical” science (see string wars) etc., etc., etc. ..

[That “post empirical science” already in there. It’s my agenda. And – Backward / Top down causality also in there. This has to help with strange-loopy explanations of subjective consciousness level objects (ie subjects) supervenient / arising on the stack of materialist physical science. Dennett again. And – Functional (what for) explanation of why?!? Dennett again. And lots more good stuff in Massimo’s paper. As he says many accounts of causation are themselves confused. I need to understand “Conserved Quantities Theory” of causation. Later (below).]

Question – there must be some good reason why Massimo Pigliucci doesn’t see Dan Dennett as part of this story?


[Post Note – Riffing on Pigliucci’s words on causation as exchange of conserved quantities.]

OK I think I get it. At the smallest reductive (irreducible) levels of physics, this is the model in use. Gluons and gravitons etc as the transferrers of force between the massive particles, and the same force as the transfer of momentum between larger Newtonian billiard-ball objects. Reductive science would have ALL causes – chemical, biological, mental – built on top of physics as aggregations of forces between particles. But these force and particle models are themselves simply analogies to predict and explain observed behaviour.

Some of us (eg Rovelli) would contend that information – any significant difference in potential – is the fundamental particle underlying the standard model anyway, whether you’re into strings or quantum-loop-gravity or whatever. Causation as transfer of conserved quantities > Collier’s transfer of information, same thing. Information is simply a difference in some property.

The example of the plant dying “because” I didn’t water it? It DOES fit the same model. Obviously there’s a complex string / stack / network of irreducible causes between me, the water and the plant and its life, where the mass of water is a conserved property being transferred through the chemical and biological processes. It’s clearly short-hand to reduce to a single causal statement, but it’s not of a fundamentally different kind, simply a higher aggregation of the same kind. Proximate or Ultimate (or First even?) is a matter of reductive choice of metaphor. Of course this throws up that at all levels, above some irreducible one – even Newtonian billiard balls above the standard & quantum models – it’s a metaphorical aggregation.

What this throws into question is more the issue of whether there is really ANY (real) irreducible level – other than information, the epistemic one – and that we are in practice always using an aggregated metaphor at ANY level. In causation, we have something that would remain the same unless some “event” exchanges a quantity. Feels almost tautological, or circular, in that we simply shifted the problem of causation to what causes the exchange event. [End riff.]

(*) EES (Extended Evolutionary Synthesis) would appear to be Templeton funded. The religious connection always causes some people a problem, but it’s just another good-neighbour / good-fences case to me.

[Post Note: And here are Massimo’s summary notes of all the CAPIE2017 (Cause and Process in Evolution) conference presentations.]

Also published on Medium.

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