Causal mechanisms

Quick: What’s the difference between a causal mechanism and a (productive) cause?

I bet you will say that the causal mechanism is the “means whereby” the cause causes what it causes.  Insulin lowers blood sugar … <wait for it> … by enabling the body to metabolize it.

Here, insulin (given its powers) is the cause.  Lowered blood sugar is the effect.  And “enabling the body to metabolize it” is the causal mechanism.  Yes?  And it looks as though we need both categories, causes and causal mechanisms.

But what if we just say “Insulin has the power to catalyze metabolism”?   Now we don’t seem to need the causal mechanism any more.  We just need the productive cause – able to do whatever it is that things of its kind are able to do.  What’s going on?

I am not at all persuaded that the category of “causal mechanism” is a natural conceptual kind, as it were.  I think we need the category of “substance” (loosely construed), and I think we need that of “property,” including powers, and I am pretty sure I think that we need that of “process,” too.  These categories, I should note (as I think I did in an earlier post), are Brian Ellis’ in Scientific Essentialism.  I’m pretty sure that I think that we need all three, in order to say what we need to say about causation.  But “causal mechanisms” — I’m ambivalent about the category.  I have a hunch that it is actually a mash-up of the categories of cause and process.

I have a new paper on this.  Let me know, if you’d like to read it.  Also, let us all know if there is something on the topic that you recommend.  Other than the thoughts that you share in your comments, that is.  :-)









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3 Responses to Causal mechanisms

  1. louisirwin9 says:

    “Insulin has the power to catalyze metabolism.” So insulin is the cause of the catalyzing of metabolism. And it is the cause because it has the power to catalyze metabolism. Insulin does indeed have the power to catalyze metabolism, but there has to be some further biological explanation why it possesses such a power, and that explanation describes an underlying causal process or mechanism. Anytime one imputes a power to explain a cause, surely an explanation of what underlies that power is in order, and that amounts to uncovering the underlying causal process or mechanism. Ontology cannot stop at the bare imputation of powers. So I think “causal mechanism” always needs to be understood as “causal process or mechanism,” and “causal process” and “causal mechanism” are quite distinct categories which underlie the concept of “cause.”

    Louis Irwin

    • rgroff2013 says:

      Hi Louis! I think the way I’d want to parse the follow-up question would be something like “Why is it that insulin can catalyze metabolism, but water can’t?” I suspect that I think of many powers as themselves being emergent properties of things that are ways (i.e., have other properties) to which any given emergent power does not reduce. I don’t know that this requires me to adopt the additional concept of a “mechanism” though.

  2. louisirwin9 says:

    Hi Ruth – I personally don’t care for the the term “causal mechanism” and prefer the more general term “causal process”. I do not have a considered opinion on whether or not there are “direct powers” which something can have without there being a corresponding underlying causal process, but I am sure that many ascriptions of powers do require explanations that involve references to associated underlying causal processes. An answer to your followup question about insulin vs. water would require reference to underlying causal processes that occur for insuin but not water, or vice versa. Won’t an explanation then of necessity involve reference to an additional concept of a “causal process” or “causal mechanism”? I did not follow your comment on emergent powers. Are you just affirming the existence of what I called “direct powers” above? Surely the cited property of insulin could not be one of those? — Louis

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