This week's conference on Causality and Explanation in the Sciences in Ghent was an unusually good academic meeting (link). Participants gathered from all over Europe, as well as a few from North America, Australia, and South Africa, to debate the logic and substance of causal interpretations of the world. Among other things, it provided all participants with a very good sense of the ideas about causation that are generating the most discussion today.
A general perception that emerges from the gestalt of papers at the conference is that there are three large focus areas in current research on scientific causation. First, there is interest in specifying what causal assertions and concepts mean in scientific explanations. What are the logical, conceptual, and pragmatic issues associated with causal assertions and explanations?
Second, there is a large body of work focusing on the methods we can use to support causal inference in the sciences. Every field of science produces volumes of data about variables and events over time. What methods exist to permit inferences about causal relationships among the observed variables and entities? This includes causal modeling statistical methods, but also comparative methods deriving from Mill's methods of difference and similarity.
Third, there is a group of philosophers and scientists who are primarily interested in the ontology of causation in various parts of the sciences. How do various factors exercise causal powers in ecology, the social sciences, or complex systems? Researchers in these areas need provisional answers to questions raised by the first two groups, but their focus is on substantive causal processes rather than the logic of causal statements.
It is useful to inventory half a dozen approaches that were repeatedly cited. This survey is impressionistic but gives an idea of the current landscape.
The mechanisms approach. The idea that we can explicate causation through the idea of a mechanism has been rising in importance over the past twenty years. The idea here is that the fundamental causal concept is that of a mechanism through which X brings about or produces Y. This is argued to be key to causation from single-case studies to large statistical studies suggesting a causal relationship between two or more variables. Peter Hedstrom and other exponents of analytical sociology are recent voices for this approach for the social sciences, though expositions of this approach don't usually go into the level of detail expected by philosophers like Woodward and Cartwright. An important paper by Peter Machamer, Lindley Darden and Carl Craver, "Thinking about Mechanisms", sets the terms of current technical discussions; their view is referred to as the MDC theory. A common concern is that the approach hasn't been as clear as it should be about what precisely a mechanism is. James Mahoney made this criticism in 2001 in "Beyond Correlational Analysis" reviewing Charles Ragin, Fuzzy-Set Social Science and Peter Hedstrom and Richard Swedberg, Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory (link), and we still need a more generally recognized specification of the idea. (See an earlier post on this approach; link.)
Why did X occur [rather than Y]?
- Why is John carrying his umbrella [rather than not]?
- Why is John carrying his umbrella [rather than his raincoat]?
- Why is John carrying his umbrella [rather than his assistant Harry]?
- Because he expects rain;
- Because it is too warm for a raincoat;
- Because Harry is carrying three heavy suitcases.
Nancy Cartwright's "Causation: One Word, Many Things" provides a very good contemporary review of the varieties of approaches that are currently being taken to the idea of causation (link).