Mechanical 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)


Hush-a-by Baby
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

In 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!")

To 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 causes Q in the natural relation, then in the explaining relation some P-involving fact explains some Q-involving fact. A satisfying causal explanations shows how P- and Q-involving facts express truths about P and 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.

This notion 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 participated. To 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.

If 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 explanations.

I say 'many' 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).

Strawson does not, 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.

A 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.


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