Transactions in P. F. Strawson's "Causation and Explanation"
(A weird view, but let's see how it works and take a brief look at how it might clash with our notion of empirical science)
On the tree top,
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock;
When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall,
Down tumbles baby,
Cradle, and all.
– Mother Goose's Melody: or, Sonnets for the Cradle
his 1985 paper "Causation and Explanation", P.
F. Strawson argues that "we should regard mechanical transactions
as fundamental in our examination of the notion of causality in
general." Strawson's definition of causality relies on
differentiating its 'natural' and 'explaining' relations. Strawson's mechanical transactions are "fundamental" because,
by observing and interpreting them, we bridge the gap between these
two relations and connect our intellectual understanding of causation
to its physical materialization. One potential problem with Strawson's supposition that only
mechanistic events can be causally explained is that it excludes many abstract scientific explanations
from counting as causal. ("So what?" says Strawson. "Maybe they shouldn't!")
interpret the significance of mechanical transactions in Strawson's
account, we must first understand what he means by causal
explanation. For Strawson, causality has both a natural relation and
an explaining relation. It is foremost something that occurs between
events in the world of the type P
causes Q, but it is
also something we understand cognitively. If P
in the natural relation, then in the explaining relation some
explains some Q-involving
fact. A satisfying causal explanations shows how P-
express truths about P
Q; it locates and accounts for the connection between the natural and explaining relations.
With this as his mandate, Strawson
argues that the natural facts to which the explaining relation is
connected are facts about our human selves, grounded in our ability
to perceive and then interpret mechanistic transactions. Causal
relations therefore consist in observable mechanistic events.
of causality fulfills its explanatory role by virtue of the fact that
we can intuitively experience the causal connection through our
actions as agents. Causal explanations are those that reveal
interactions to be of a like kind to those in which we have personally
Strawson, however, mechanical
transactions – pushes and pulls, crashes and bangs – are the only
ones that we can instantly recognize as parallels to our own
experiences (in which we mechanically push, pull, crash and
bang). Strawson is a primitivist about causation; for him, this intuitive 'Biff! Pow!' understanding of causation is simply the best we can do, and the only sort of explanation we can possibly provide for causation in the world is going to have to be grounded in that Biff!iness.
mechanical transactions are the only particulars we can use to
acquaint ourselves with causality in the general sense, we are faced with
a substantial worry in regard to the empirical sciences.
If the link between our
intellectual understanding of causation and its role in the natural
world holds only on Strawson's mechanistic terms, many
abstract scientific explanations will not count as causal
rather than 'all' because Strawson does take steps to legitimize
causal explanations in cases where mechanical interaction is only "paradigmatically explanatory". In these cases, the causal
explanation stands as long as the model of pushing and pulling is
still what is fundamentally (if indirectly) at work. He offers
magnetism as an example. Magnetic and magnetized objects operate on
each other from a distance, but we articulate these operations
mechanistically. The words 'attraction' and 'repulsion', for
instance, are analogically conjoined to our firsthand awareness of pushes and
pulls. The indirect transactions that occur between magnets are thus of the same kind by analogy as the more direct transactions we've personally experienced, and we can safely interpret magnetism causally. In other
examples, Strawson attempts to bring both fluid dynamics and gravitational
theory to the heel of mechanistic causality through similar
intellectual maneuvers (of varying credibility).
however, allow these kinds of analogical models to defend the work of the scientist at an
infinite remove. As physical theory grows more refined, these models "wear
out", their analogies growing less and less legitimate. In
complex cases, equations and mathematics subsume the visual and primitively causal explanations of simpler events, leaving the scientist with his hands in his pockets, unable to translate what he is talking about into causal terms.
complex physical theory of this kind, denied the language of
causality, must then establish its validity another way. Imagine a
scientist wants to explain a phenomenon and is deciding between two
possible hypotheses, each explaining it equally well and neither of
which inductively proveable through the observation of
mechanistic transactions. By Strawson's lights, the scientist is
forced to hold them equally valid in this case, since inductive experiments can
say nothing meaningful about the way events occur in the natural
world if they are not mechanistic demonstrations we can relate to our
own experiences. More subtle inductive inquiries than these are
delegitimized; results drawn from them exist only in the intellect,
confined to a windowless room from which they can say nothing of real
object relations. So much for theoretical physics under Strawson.