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March 8th, 2007

Causation Survey


UPDATE: The survey is now closed. See below for results and discussion, and thanks to everyone who took part!

This is a bit of a gratuitous request. I’m very interested in cases like the one below, but my intuitions about the case are exceedingly unclear. So I’m hoping that if I ask all my friends for their reaction I’ll understand the case (and one interesting class of cases of which it is a member) much better. So if you could take the poll below I’ll be very grateful. (I’m not sure why there is so much space above the survey, by the way, but I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it.)

Consider the following story, and say which of the sentences below are true in it.

Host is hosting a dinner party at which Guest is a guest. Host lives on the eighth floor of a building with a single elevator. The party is going well until Host mentions the war. This upsets Guest who storms out and calls the elevator, by pressing the down button on the elevator console. Unfortunately, the elevator has just left and won’t return until it has gone to the ground floor. While Guest is waiting, and before the elevator has reached the ground, another person on this floor, Neighbour, comes to the elevator. She would have called the elevator, which had not yet reached the ground, but saw that Guest had already called it. If Neighbour had called the elevator, it would have arrived at the time it actually arrived, since the elevator would not have started back up until it reached the ground in any case. Some time after that the elevator arrives and Guest and Neighbour ride it to the ground floor.

UPDATE: I’ve now closed the survey after getting 200 responses. Here are the responses.

The number in brackets at the end is the number of the respondents to have said the sentence is true in the story.

I’ll write this up in more detail soon, but there are two big things I wanted to draw attention to.

First, the difference between ‘caused’ and ‘a cause of’. My impression is that a lot of the literature on causation runs these two together. Now it is possible that there is no truth-conditional difference between the expressions, but I would say that’s rather unlikely. So people who want to analyse these expressions should be aware of the possibility, perhaps probability, that the same analysis will not work for each.

Second, the difference between causal relations that ground causatives and those that don’t in what we’d ordinarily call pre-emptive causation networks. It’s clearly true in the story Host’s mentioning the war set in chain a series of events that led to the elevator being called, and almost everyone agreed that caused the elevator to appear. I’d bet that in any case where that chain sustained a causative, say if Host had asked Guest to call the elevator, then people would say that Host did cause the elevator to appear. Or at least a lot more than 50% of people would say that Host is a cause of the elevator appearing. Normal analysis of pre-emptive causation is not sensitive to this point.

I’m primarily interested in the second point. Say that c merely causes e if c causes e, but we cannot use a causative (opened, called, killed etc) to describe the relation between c and e. Then my hunch is that there is no mere pre-emptive causation. That is, if c merely causes e, then e is counterfactually dependent on c. We need a lot more than this case to show that is true, but that’s my current working hypothesis.

Thanks again to everyone who took part!

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

6 Comments »

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6 Responses to “Causation Survey”

  1. P.D. Magnus says:

    “…but saw that Host had already called it.”

    I suppose you mean “Guest” here, but it has thrown me off and made me wary that the whole thing is a trick question.

  2. Brian Weatherson says:

    Yes, I did mean that. I’m not sure if I can edit the question using this software, but I’ll try.

  3. Brian Weatherson says:

    Ah, it should be fixed now

  4. Kenny Easwaran says:

    I submitted my responses, but I think I saw some sort of error, so I don’t know if it got through…

  5. Brian Weatherson says:

    I think the response went through. At least there was one response left just before this message was posted.

    I’ve been having some problems all morning with getting the survey to load properly. But I think the problems come after the responses have been tabulated.

  6. cottrellnc says:

    “Guest’s calling the elevator caused the elevator to arrive” — Hard to quarrel with that.

    “If Guest had not called the elevator, it would not have arrived” — The 10 who said Yes to that need to read more carefully! Bzzt!

    “Host’s mentioning the war caused the elevator to arrive” — Too remote. For all we know, Guest might have decided to stomp down the stairs after being offended.

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