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Interventionist Causation in Physical Science

Zwier, Karen (2015) Interventionist Causation in Physical Science. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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The current consensus view of causation in physics, as commonly held by scientists and philosophers, has several serious problems. It fails to provide an epistemology for the causal knowledge that it claims physics to possess; it is inapplicable in a prominent area of physics (classical thermodynamics); and it is difficult to reconcile with our everyday use of causal concepts and claims.

In this dissertation, I use historical examples and philosophical arguments to show that the interventionist account of causation constitutes a promising alternative for a “physically respectable” account of causation. The interventionist account explicates important parts of the experimental practice of physics and important aspects of the ways in which physical theory is used and applied. Moreover, the interventionist account succeeds where the consensus view of causation in physics fails.

I argue that the interventionist account provides an epistemology of causal knowledge in physics that is rooted in experiment. On the interventionist view, there is a close link between experiment and the testing of causal claims. I give several examples of experiments from the early history of thermodynamics that scientists used in interventionist-type arguments. I also argue that interventionist claims made in the context of a physical theory can be epistemically justified by reference to the experimental interventions and observations that serve as evidence for the theory.

I then show that the interventionist account of causation is well-suited to the patterns of reasoning that are intrinsic to thermodynamic theory. I argue that interventionist reasoning constitutes the structural foundation of thermodynamic theory, and that thermodynamic theory can provide clear answers to meaningful questions about whether or not a certain variable is a cause of another in a given context.

Finally, I argue that the interventionist account offers the prospect of a unification of “physically respectable” causation and our everyday notion of causation. I conclude the dissertation by sketching an anti-foundationalist unification of causation, according to which causal reasoning occurs in the same manner in physics as it does in other branches of life and scientific research.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairMitchell, Sandrasmitchel@pitt.eduSMITCHEL
Committee MemberBatterman, Robertrbatterm@pitt.eduRBATTERM
Committee MemberNorton, Johnjdnorton@pitt.eduJDNORTON
Committee MemberWilson, Markmawilson@pitt.eduMAWILSON
Committee MemberWoodward, Jamesjfw@pitt.eduJFW
Date: 14 January 2015
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 20 November 2014
Approval Date: 14 January 2015
Submission Date: 7 October 2014
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 193
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > History and Philosophy of Science
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: causation; thermodynamics; intervention; experiment; physics
Date Deposited: 14 Jan 2015 19:45
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 14:24


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