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Causal Reasoning

Another common variety of inductive reasoning is
concerned with establishing the presence of causal
relationships among events. When we have good
reason to believe that events of one sort (the causes)
are systematically related to events of some other sort
(the effects), it may become possible for us to alter our
environment by producing (or by preventing) the
occurence of certain kinds of events.
But what constitutes adequate evidence of causation?
Although we typically use conditional statements to
express our causal beliefs, the logical connective known
as material implication seems to capture only a part of
what we have in mind. Even regarding the cause as a
necessary and sufficient condition for the effect doesn't
cover all of our concept of causation. It may be that
there is less here than meets the eye; David Hume
pointed out that our causal beliefs are unjustifiable,
even if they come naturally.
The fundamental presumption behind our concept
seems to be that causal connections are lawful (or at
least lawlike); they involve some kind of uniformity or
reqularity in the natural world. Certainly it is by
observing some uniform pattern in the occurrence of
eventsthe regular appearance of the effect following
its causethat we come to expect that the cause will
invariably be followed by the effect.
Mill's Methods
Philosopher John Stuart Mill devised a set of five careful
methods (or canons) by means of which to analyze and
interpret our observations for the purpose of drawing
conclusions about the causal relationships they exhibit.
In order to see how each of the five methods work, let's
consider their practical application to a specific
situation. Suppose that on an otherwise uneventful

afternoon, the College Nurse becomes aware that an

unusual number of students are suffering from severe
indigestion. Ms. Hayes naturally suspects that this
symptom results from something the students ate for
lunch, and she would like to find out for sure. The Nurse
wants to find evidence that will support a conclusion
that "Eating ?xxxx? causes indigestion." Mill's Methods
can help.
Method of Agreement
Suppose that four students come to Ms. Hayes with
indigestion, and she questions each about what they
had for lunch. The first had pizza, coleslaw, orange
juice, and a cookie; the second had a hot dog and
french fries, coleslaw, and iced tea; the third ate pizza
and coleslaw and drank iced tea; and the fourth ate
only french fries, coleslaw, and chocolate cake. Ms.
Hayes, of course, concludes that "Eating coleslaw
caused the indigestion."
This is an application of Mill's Method of Agreement:
investigation of the cases in which the effect occurred
revealed only one prior circumstance that all of them
shared. Our customary notion here is that similar
effects are likely to arise from a similar cause, and
since everyone who fell ill had eaten coleslaw, it was
probably the cause.
Method of Difference
On the other hand, suppose that only two students
arrive at the Nurse's office. The two are roommates
who ate together, but one became ill while the other
did not. The first had eaten a hot dog, french fries,
coleslaw, chocolate cake, and iced tea, while the other
had eaten a hot dog, french fries, chocolate cake, and
iced tea. Again, Ms. Hayes concludes that the coleslaw
is what made the first roommate ill.
This reasoning applies Mill's Method of Difference:

comparison of a case in which the effect occurred and a

case in which the effect did not occur revealed that
only one prior circumstance was present in the first
case but not it the second. In such situations, we
commonly suppose that, other things being equal,
different effects are likely to arise from different causes,
and since only the student who had eaten coleslaw
became ill, it was probably the cause.
Joint Method of Agreement and Difference
Now put these two situations together by assuming
that eight students come to Ms. Hayes: four of them
suffered from indigestion, and with each of these four
there is another who did not. Each pair of students had
exactly the same lunch, except that everyone in the
first group ate coleslaw and no one in the second group
did. The Nurse arrives at the same conclusion.
This situation is an example of Mill's Joint Method of
Agreement and Difference: the first four students are
evidence that everyone who got ill had eaten coleslaw,
and the four matching pairs are evidence that only
those who got ill had eaten coleslaw. This is a powerful
combination of the first two methods, since it tends to
support our notion that genuine causes are necessary
and sufficient conditions for their effects.
Method of Concomitant Variation
Change the situation again. Suppose that the Nurse
sees five students: the first ate no coleslaw and feels
fine; the second had one bite of coleslaw and felt a little
queasy; the third had half a dish of coleslaw and is
fairly ill; the fourth ate a whole dish of coleslaw and is
violently ill; and the fifth ate two servings of coleslaw
and had to be rushed to the hospital. The conclusion is
again that coleslaw caused the indigestion.
This is an example of Mill's Method of Concomitant
Variation: the evidence appears to show that there is a

direct correlation between the degree to which the

cause occurred and the degree to which the effect
occurred. This conforms to our ordinary supposition
that effects are typically proportional to their causes. In
effect, this is a sophisticated version of the Joint
Method, one in which we notice not just the occurrence
or non-occurrence of the causal terms, but the extent
to which each of them took place.
Method of Residues
Finally, suppose that Ms. Hayes, during prior
investigations of student illness, has already
established that pizza tends to produce a rash and iced
tea tends to cause headaches. Today, a student arrives
at the Nurse's office complaining of headache,
indigestion, and a rash; this student reports having
eaten pizza, coleslaw, and iced tea for lunch. Since she
can account for most of the student's symptoms as the
effects of known causes, Ms. Hayes concludes that the
additional effect of indigestion must be caused by the
additional circumstance of eating coleslaw.
This pattern of reasoning exemplifies Mill's Method of
Residues: many elements of a complex effect are
shown to result, by reliable causal beliefs, from several
elements of a complex cause; whatever remains of the
effect must then have been produced by whatever
remains of the cause. Notice that if we suppose the
truth of all of the causal relationships involved, this
method becomes an application of deductive
As a general qualification on the reliability of these
Methods, notice that the issue of relevance is again
crucial. Our Nurse began with the assumption that what
students had eaten for lunch was relevant to their
digestive health in the afternoon. That's a reasonable
guess, but of course the real cause could have been

something else entirely, something about which the

Nurse never thought to ask. No matter how much
evidence we gather, inductive reasoning cannot
achieve perfect certainty.
Discovery or Proof?
Although Mill's Methods are an important component of
serious investigation of natural phenomena, they have
significant limitations. Careful application of these
methods succeeds only when every relevant
antecedent circumstance is taken into account, and
that is impossible to guarantee in advance.
If our chief aim in applying Mill's Methods were to
discover the unknown cause of some observed event,
then they would fail us precisely when we need them
most. The Methods show us how to identify the likely
cause from among those possibilities that we have
considered among the relevant antecedent
circumstances of this effect. But the most interesting
cases will be those in which the cause we seek lies in
some unsuspected source, which we have probably
excluded from our analysis of the antecedent
circumstances as irrelevant. Thus, Mill's Methods can't
help us to discover causes unless we already know
(roughly) what those causes are likely to be.
If the goal of using Mill's Methods were to prove that
one event is the cause of another, we would fare even
worse. Our inability to consider every possible
circumstance (even those that seem irrelevant to us)
will often lead us to mistake the true cause of an event.
What is more, the Methods encourage the identification
of single causes, overlooking the fact that many
interesting effects may result from some complex
combination of partial causes. At best, Mill's Methods
can only help us to establish the presence of a
correlation between the occurrences of distinct events,
leaving any question about the reality of a causal

connection unanswered. Used as proof, inductive

reasoning generally cannot offer the same certainty
that valid deductive reasoning provides.
Perhaps it is best to regard Mill's Methods more
modestly, as tools we can employ in our efforts to
confirm hypotheses about the natural world. If we have
already proposed several specific hypotheses about
what may be the cause of an observed event, then
using the Methods will be helpful, since that will often
enable us to eliminate most of the possible causes we
have identified, and this tends to confirm the
hypothesis that any remaining circumstance is likely to
be the genuine cause.
In order to understand this process more fully, our next
two lessons will explicitly examine the formation and
evaluation of scientific hypotheses.

Causal reasoning

There are two types of causation : singular vs. ge

causation is a relation between two particular ev
event is some activity or occurrence at some par
Here are some examples of singular causation :
Her singing causes the windows to shatter.
The viral infection caused his death.
As for general causation, it is a relation between two
types of events, as in :
Smoking causes cancer.
Pressing the button causes the bell to ring.
It seems reasonable to think that general causation is
to be analysed in terms of singular causation. So "type
X events cause type Y events" might be understood as
something roughly like "particular events of type X are
highly likely to cause particular events of type Y."

Some useful terminology

The concept of a cause is quite vague, and sometimes

it might be useful to distinguish between these three
different concepts :
An event X is causally necessary for an event Y if and
only if Y would not have happened if X had not
An event X is causally sufficient for an event Y if and
only if the presence of X alone is enough to bring about
So for example, heating a gas is causally sufficient but
not necessary to increase its pressure - you can
increase its pressure by compressing the gas as well.
Pressing the light switch might be causally necessary to
turn the light on but it is not sufficient since electricity
is lso required.
Sometimes, a causal factor can be salient or relevant to
the effect even if it is neither necessary nor sufficient,

e.g. hardwork might be a causally relevant factor that is

part of the explanation of why a student has passed,
but presumably it is neither necessary nor sufficient.
We can also draw a distinction between triggering and
standing or structural causes. A triggering cause is a
cause that sets into motion the chain of events that
lead to an effect. Whereas a standing cause is some
static condition that contributes to the effect only in
conjunction with a triggering cause.
For example, suppose there was an explosion in a room
full of flammable gases. The triggering cause might be
the event of someone lighting a match in the room, and
the presence of the gases would be the standing cause.
Similarly, the standing cause of a particular riot might
have to do with high unemployment, with the triggering
cause being some particular event such as perhaps
someone being beaten up by the police.

Explaining causation in terms of

causal mechanisms
The universe contains objects and processes at various
levels. Big objects such as societies are composed of
smaller objects such as individual human beings, and
high level processes such as the conduction of
electricity is composed of lower-level processes such as
the movement of electrons. To explain causation, it is
not enough just to know that A is the cause of B, we
need a theory that explains how A causes B. What is
needed is a theory of the lower-level causal
mechanisms that lead from A to B.
For example, to explain why heating causes a piece of
metal to expand, we cite the fact that heating gives
energy to the metal atoms, and as a result of increasing
vibration due to higher energy the distance between
the atoms increase and this constitutes expansion. The
structure of this explanation can be represented by a
diagram :

What this diagram shows is that a high level physical

causal process is explained in terms of a lower-level
mechanism. Without lower-level mechanisms, we would
not be able to understand how high-level causation can