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The new riddle of causation

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I strike a match, and it lights. Normally I say the strike caused the flame, and normally I do not say that the presence of oxygen caused the flame, even though I know that but for the presence of oxygen there would have been no flame. This sort of selection of cause (e.g. match strike) from among the conditions (e.g. presence of oxygen) for a given effect (e.g. flame) has been called an ‘invidious discrimination’. There is said to be a ‘prior’ philosophical question of what it is to be a cause, unselectively speaking; and it is this question which philosophers have mostly tried to answer. But I argue that this prior question is a philosophical fantasy. The difference between cause and condition is fundamental to our concept of causation, and central to the uses we make of it. Accordingly, philosophical accounts of causation need to be accounts of selection as well. I propose and defend an analysis of causation, employing a simple but untried counterfactual, which makes the difference between cause and condition as central to our causal concept as the difference between cause and coincidence.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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