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On Causal Inferences in the Humanities and Social Sciences: Actual Causation

Livengood, Jonathan (2011) On Causal Inferences in the Humanities and Social Sciences: Actual Causation. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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The last forty years have seen an explosion of research directed at causation and causal inference. Statisticians developed techniques for drawing inferences about the likely effects of proposed interventions: techniques that have been applied most noticeably in social and life sciences. Computer scientists, economists, and methodologists merged graph theory and structural equation modeling in order to develop a mathematical formalism that underwrites automated search for causal structure from data. Analytic metaphysicians and philosophers of science produced an array of theories about the nature of causation and its relationship to scientific theory and practice.Causal reasoning problems come in three varieties: effects-of-causes problems, causes-of-effects problems, and structure-learning or search problems. Causes-of-effects problems are the least well-understood of the three, in part because of confusion about exactly what problem is supposed to be solved. I claim that the problem everyone is implicitly trying to solve is the problem of identifying the actual cause(s) of a given effect, which I will call simply the problem of actual causation. My dissertation is a contribution to the search for a satisfying solution to the problem of actual causation.Towards a satisfying solution to the problem of actual causation, I clarify the nature of the problem. I argue that the only serious treatment of the problem of actual causation in the statistical literature fails because it confuses actual causation with simple difference-making. Current treatments of the problem of actual causation by philosophers and computer scientists are better but also ultimately unsatisfying. After pointing out that the best current theories fail to capture intuitions about some simple voting cases, I step back and ask a methodological question: how is the correct theory of actual causation to be discovered? I argue that intuition-fitting, whether by experimentation or by armchair, is misguided, and I recommend an alternative, pragmatic approach. I show by experiments that ordinary causal judgments are closely connected to broadly moral judgments, and I argue that actual causal inferences presuppose normative, not merely descriptive, information. I suggest that the way forward in solving the problem of actual causation is to focus on norms of proper functioning.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairNorton, JDNORTON
Committee CoChairSpirtes, Peter
Committee MemberMachery,
Committee MemberKrafty, Robertkrafty@pitt.eduKRAFTY
Committee MemberMitchell, Sandysmitchel@pitt.eduSMITCHEL
Date: 29 September 2011
Date Type: Completion
Defense Date: 17 August 2011
Approval Date: 29 September 2011
Submission Date: 17 August 2011
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
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: cause of effect; Dawid; effect of cause; experimental philosophy; actual causation; Hitchcock; structural causation
Other ID:, etd-08172011-164634
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2011 20:00
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 13:49


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