Wednesday, 23 December 2015


Interventionism is a doctrine in the philosophy of science which tells us that what it is for x to cause y is for an intervention on x to impact also on the happening of y.

Since it uses concepts like ‘intervention’ and ‘impact’ it is not to be read as attempting to analyse causation in non-causal terms. It is not attempting to provide a reductive analysis.

But then, well: what is it trying to do? We can’t really be expected to be taken all that seriously if we answer ‘well duh it’s trying to provide a non-reductive account or analysis of causation’ or some-such, since it is now far less obvious what ‘account’ or ‘analysis’ means here, in this new context – certainly far less obvious than, say, what ‘cause’ means.

It seems to me, on rather minimal acquaintance, that the interventionist project really arises from grappling with a certain puzzle – of how to distinguish causes from coincidences. As is usual when philosophical research projects arise in such a way, the question principally comes up for someone who is contemplating a rather detached and unusual scenario, someone not concurrently engaged in a situation in which they directly know of the causal relation between two things conjoined in a single event, as when I myself push or pull or cut something, pick up the cat, pick my nose. But rather a situation in which they witness two things or events obtain and wonder if they are causally or merely coincidentally arising. Perfect examples to sustain what we could call the ‘imaginary’ of the problematic will therefore probably be ones in which a switch is pressed over there, a trigger pulled over here, a boulder set rolling up here – and then a light comes on, a pheasant falls down dead, a landslide gets going, down there.

What I want to suggest here is that this particular juncture of perplexity is essential to the apparent intelligibility of the interventionist research project. I also suggest that if we start from here, in the quest to reflectively respect the being of causality, and try and come up with some criterion which will help us here to distinguish coincidences from causes, we will never get anywhere. Saying it that boldly is not of course something that could be written in a philosophy paper, but this is a blog post, ok (so eat it).

Such a situation is readily familiar to us from other philosophical contexts. Hence the arising of the Gettier problem. Someone tries to understand knowledge by starting from something potentially less secure, more abstracted – starting from ‘mere belief’ that is – and wonders what more we must say, on top of, conjoining, logically or causally related to the belief – in order to ascend our way to knowledge. Or we try to work out what must be added to mere intrinsically non-world-involving ‘internal representations’ for them to help them ascend to genuine cases of accurate memory or perception or belief. Or we start from an alienated conception of the lived body – as a juncture of mere movement – and wonder what must be added to arm raisings for them to ascend (no pun intended) to the status of arm risings. This attempt to distinguish causes from co-arisings through providing a marker of some sort to be added to the latter - haven't we seen it before in, for example, attempts to say what makes for the difference between those perceptual appearances which are mere, and those which are revelatory? (It's hard to even put this question out there without already deploying the question-begging non-disjunctivist conceptualisation which would have it that there is some thing in common between mere and revelatory appearances - i.e. the appearance - when, from what I take to be a more epistemically respectable disjunctivist perspective, the terminology of appearance is best left to do its duty precisely in its contrastive application with bona fide perceptual reality-contact.) Interventionism is, one could say, a kind of non-disjunctivist account of causality which wants to present the basic situation to us in terms of a common co-arising which in some instances inflates to causality. 'But how?' is the allegedly respectable journey it invites us all on.     

Now the elucidatory context is clear, and we start to get a good sense of what it is to be an ‘analytical philosopher’ who is ‘currently working on’ (ugh) ‘the [putative] problem of’ (double ugh) causality / perception / knowledge / etc. First you start from a disengaged uncertain spectatorial take on a phenomenon, you wonder then how to get from this to something with the life-blood world-involvement of knowing and seeing and doing and causing pumped back into it, and then you get busy proposing theories, and when someone then comes along with inevitable counter-examples, you think ‘oh goodie a research project’ and set to ‘work’.

Back to interventionism. Start from a case in which it is not already evident that we have to do with causality. Not a case of you squashing a spider – where there is one clear event in which your toe with squidging squelching inevitability causes the spider’s loss of three dimensionality. But rather a case of you pressing a switch, and something happening somewhere else – a buzzer sounds perhaps, and this often or usually or always happening when you press this switch, and then us wondering if here we have to do with causality or coincidence. And then we start to hunt around for a principle to distinguish between the two cases. The general tack is clear: start with mere happenings, and see if we can ascend to bona fide causings.

The principle that interventionism cites is: your pressing of the switch can be considered the cause of the buzzer sounding iff intervening on your pressing of the switch intervenes on the occurrence of the buzzing. That seems like just the ticket. We seem now to recover the certainty and pulsion we feel our use of the concept requires not by thinking instead of those engaged contexts of pushing and pulling but rather by adding a counterfactual principle of the ‘were it not for this, then not that’ sort.

And yet the problem that immediately arises is we start thinking of cases in which the that would have occurred even if the this which, undisputed cause as it nevertheless was, hadn’t obtained. Or, relying now on a particular use of the concept of cause which essentially pits it against matters agential, we imagine a case of my periodically pressing a switch and some perverse little bugger in the next room always watching me and then of his own free and devious will pressing the button that causes the buzzer to sound. (‘He’s the real cause’, we say.)

Rather than put her hands up with a ‘you got me guvnor’ gesture, the temptation for the philosopher who likes a ‘research project’ will now be to come up with a further set of criteria. So perhaps it is said that if someone now intervenes on that Z which would as it happens have caused X to happen had not Y caused it – which Y is subject to our imaginary intervention – and X does not now happen, then Y can be said to cause it. Or they say that the relevant concept of causality is not to be pitted against matters agential so that the little bugger’s actions are properly to be thought of as caused by our actions. Well, that certainly hypes things up a bit. But where does it really get us? Now we are to get our causings out of our happenings in the following way: X happening is the cause of Y happening if stopping X stops Y and if a load of other possible stuff that could have meant that Y happened anyway doesn’t happen. The difficulty for such a treatment will still be, I propose, that a niggling doubt in us is never quite sated that we still here just have events hanging in the air next to one another, that we might just meet with friends rather than with relatives, thereby failing to attain the bite of bona fide causality. Might not God have arranged the world so that some stuff only happens in constant conjunctions but yet there still obtain no causal relation between the conjuncta? (Perhaps He’s decided to take a leaf out of Jung’s book on synchronicity.) Or maybe that doesn't really make sense. But it's hard to know. My point is really just that it's not yet obvious that we can ascend to causality from conjunctions plus conditions. 

But it's also not obvious to me why I should ever want to try this - unless for some reason I've started my whole investigation of the being of causality by contemplating e.g. cases of action at a distance, cases in which we can't just swallow in one mouthful the fact of the causal relation itself. Why try to get to causings by adding things to happenings? (As the Irishman asked in Cork how to get to Dublin said: ‘well don’t start from here’.) We know from the start that we aren’t going to get a marvellous reduction of causality – since we’re using concepts like ‘intervention’ to get this whole thing going. We know too that we might have to specify a possible infinity of defeating conditions on all the other exceptional things that might yet have caused Y to happen even if X hadn’t happened. And most importantly we know we’re still going to be left with this strange sense of it all somehow still hanging in the air. That, however, is surely an artefact of the original problematic – this attempt to get the meat of causality out of the veg of co-incidence. Why even ask ourselves ‘But what is it for X to cause Y?’ I mean: what a funny question! How about, instead of answering that with a theorem, we instead remind ourselves of where we ordinarily encounter the meat of causality – not in cases of action at a distance – the flicking of switches, the firing of bullets – but in the slow squishing of that spider under your callous toe. Now you remember ‘what causality is’. Don’t you?