Question on Weisberg’s Conception of Explanatorily Priviledged Causal Factors

In Uncategorized on February 25, 2010 by Leo

I was wondering if someone could help me out with a question I had on Weisberg’s characterization of Minimalist Idealization (MI) which may be entirely due to my lack of knowledge on causality.

Weisberg defines MI as “the practice of constructing and studying theoretical models that include only the core causal factors which give rise to the phenomenon…. a minimalist model contains only those factors that make a difference to the occurrence and essential character of the phenomenon in question.” (642) He goes on to characterize the purpose of MI as being distinct from the purpose of Galilean Idealization (GI). While GI is done for entirely pragmatic reasons, MI is done insofar as it “aid(s) in scientific explanation” by identifying “a special set of explanatorily privileged causal factors.” (645)

What exactly is this special set of explanatorily privileged causal factors? On one level it seems pretty intuitive. The explanatorily privileged causal factors are those factors without which the phenomenon would not occur. Remove A and B will not obtain (~A ﬤ ~ B). A here could be an explanatorily privileged causal factor of phenomenon B (though I’m sure a lot more work needs to go show that A is in fact causal).

This though gets a lot more complicated when trying to determine the privileged causal factors of real world phenomenon. During our informal discussion today, Lynn had a wonderful example involving chickens. Apparently chicken eggs don’t hatch in zero gravity (who knew?!). Is gravity (to whatever degree) then an explanatorily privileged causal factor of chicken eggs hatching? Of course this could go on and on including other factors such as temperature, humidity, etc… If we include all these factors, doesn’t it seem that this model is no longer minimal? If we don’t include such factors, why is it that they are not among the privileged set? Also would you have to include negative causes as well? That is that one of the explanatorily privileged causal factors is that it is not the case that (fill in the blank).

Josh suggested (I think but correct me if I misinterpreted) that it may be the case that what causal factors are explanatorily privileged depends on the context in which we are asking the question. That is if we are concerned with chicken eggs on earth then we need not be concerned with cases of zero gravity. However if we were to raise chickens in space (a fantastic idea in my opinion), then it could be an explanatorily privileged causal factor. This though seems to suggest that MI is pragmatic but Weisberg explicitly denies this. “[U]nlike Galilean idealization, minimalist idealization is not at all pragmatic and we should not expect it to abate with the progress of science” (645)

Perhaps though the focus should be on the “explanatorily” part of explanatorily privileged causal factors. That is that MI includes only those causal factors which best explain the phenomenon. This though does seem to make MI context dependent on why we are trying to explain the phenomenon or even who the audience of the explanation is. If that is the case, then MI will not abate with the progress of science, but will vary depending on the context of explanation. This I guess could be fine? Even if this is the case though, MI does still seem a bit pragmatic, if only pedagogically pragmatic.


2 Responses to “Question on Weisberg’s Conception of Explanatorily Priviledged Causal Factors”

  1. Ha, thanks for pointing the chicken example out, Leo.
    Here’s why chicken eggs don’t hatch: when the egg is rolling in the tunnel toward the hen’s bottom end (sorry for the lack of scientific terms here), it is crucial that the egg yolk remains at the top (away from gravity) of the egg for the subsequent genetic pathways to be activated. Therefore, at zero gravity, the yolk would spread and the pathways will not activate. So despite the wonderful idea of space-chickens, alas that cannot be done without the help of gravity, and the right one (9.8!!).

    By this example, I was trying to point out a kind of MI that is not like Streven’s difference-making factor account. My point is: not all difference-making factors are explanatorily relevant. For an idealization model that aims for 1-Causal but not Completeness idealization, some difference-making factors are more *accidental* than others that are more robust. Since we usually think that only the latter is explanatorily relevant, not the former, not all difference-making factors are causally relevant.

    Weisberg’s illustration of Steven and Cartwrights’ accounts seem to imply that the necessary and sufficient conditions for canonical causal explanations are only the difference-making factors. Yet some but not all difference making factors are robust causal factors that are explanatorily important. Yet not all robust causal factors are also explanatorily important (ex. air friction in Newtonian models of motion and acceleration *always* exist), thus this conception of canonical causal explanation does not capture the *core* causal factors.

    I am interested to take on Josh’s point that what core causal factors are might be a perspective-relative issue instead of an absolute fact. I do not take this as a more “pragmatic” issue, but an issue that drives right into what we take is real in the world. If the 1-causal approach is perspective-relative, then 1-causal idealization collapses into completeness idealization. This is because perspective-relativity implies that the phenomenon can be observed from different aspects, but none could give us the complete story.

    Therefore, 1-causal idealization cannot be a perspective-relative issue. If so, it would imply that there are no core causal factors at all. That is, if we hold the view that only the factors that have any causal effect in the phenomenon counts *as* the phenomenon (if the light cone of some other event does not touch the light cone of this event at all, it does not exist for this event, and thus definitely does not count as part of the target phenomenon), than an account giving the causal factors of a phenomenon IS the complete account of the phenomenon.

    The reason why there is the distinction between core and none core causal factors shows that canonical explanations cannot merely be the difference-making factors but something more. Something that would only reveal one and only one set of core causal factors. Maybe this is something robust analysis could provide us with.


  2. I agree that minimalist idealization needs to eliminate some explanatorily causal factors, but I think even this process is pragmatic, it is pragmatic in a different sense than the Galilean idealization being pragmatic.

    For minimalist idealization, the aim is to pick out “a set of explanatorily privileged causal factors” (645). Since the factors must be explanatorily *privileged* causal, I agree with Leo that they are more than the factors that the phenomenon depends on counterfactually. For example, in the egg example, if gravity is not amon the privileged causal factors, then perhaps what the work gravity does to the egg can be done by other factor(s), or perhaps gravity is constant in the context, as Josh suggest. Also, how do we know gravity is not among the privileged causal factors?

    Anyhow, even if gravity is ruled out because it is always there in the context, it is a different sense of pragmatics than the sense for Galilean idealization. Galilean idealization is pragmatic in the sense that the current technology is unable to investigate further the phenomenon (the model is constrained by the sciences at the time). However, minimalist idealization is pragmatic (if we want to use the term) in the sense that the target phenomenon constrains what to pick out.

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