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Warwick Leverhulme Bridges programme seminar

Making Connections: Construals and Causality

Meurig Beynon
Reader Emeritus, Computer Science, University of Warwick

Room H0.60, Humanities building, University of Warwick on the 5th December 2017 at 2 pm.

Causality is a notion relevant across the disciplines. It is also notoriously problematic. As Shrout observed in a public lecture on "The Art and Science of Cause and Effect" [8]: "Though it is basic to human thought, causality is a notion shrouded in mystery, controversy, and caution, because scientists and philosophers have had difficulties defining when one event truly causes another." Such a quotation stands in a thought-provoking relationship to the declared aim of the Warwick Leverhulme Bridges Programme [10]: "to provide PhD students with deep knowledge of contemporary research questions in the social sciences, and rigorous training in the mathematical and computational approaches needed to answer them." Shrout's lecture serves as an introduction to seminal award-winning work by Judea Pearl on causal inference that is clearly an appropriate focus for such training. What is less clear is to what extent all research questions relating to causality in the social sciences are amenable to Pearl's mathematical and computational techniques.

This talk considers how causality relates to 'making construals': an approach to developing interactive artefacts to support sense-making that has been pioneered by the Empirical Modelling (EM) research group in Computer Science at Warwick over the last thirty years (see [1,2,3,4]). The term 'construal' was introduced by the philosopher of science David Gooding to account for the way in which Michael Faraday was able to informally represent and reason about electromagnetic phenomena without the benefit of a mathematical formalism [6]. Faraday's construals took the form of physical artefacts with which you can interact (if only perhaps in your imagination) in ways that, through analogy, convey the characteristics of electromagnetic observables. Computer technology has a transformative impact on the kinds and quality of interactive physical artefacts we can construct. By way of illustration, Goldstein [5] refers to 'Exploratory Explanations' as "... a new type of interactive experience online [which] you may recognize ... by an immediate connection with data or mathematics, coupled with clear visualization of the subject matter." The principal objective in the EM project is to give a broader account of computing that can embrace such 'new types of interactive experience' within a principled framework. Characteristic of the novel interactions that many contemporary applications of computing support is the focus on live direct intervention with immediate feedback: a feature that distinguishes Faraday's experimental work from that of Ampere [6], the emerging science of causal inference from previous statistical approaches, and 'making digital construals' from 'writing abstract computer programs'.

Topics to be addressed is the talk include: an overview of the principles and techniques for making construals and their relevance to studying causality across the disciplines and in everyday life; the significance of William James's radical empiricism [7] as a philosophical foundation for making construals and its implications for thinking about causality; the connection between making construals and the principles underlying the work on causal inference as introduced by Shrout [9]. In keeping with the spirit of the Leverhulme Bridges venture, these topics are highly relevant to 'bridging the mathematical and social sciences', but they also highlight problematic aspects of focusing solely on 'mathematical and computational approaches' and potentially motivate a more ambitious and controversial agenda: that of reconciling a science of computing with the vexing notion of 'construction' as conceived in the social sciences (cf. [8]).

  1. The Empirical Modelling project,
  2. The CONSTRUIT! project,
  3. The Construit environment for making construals,
  4. Some online resources generated by the CONSTRUIT! project. At the url:
  5. Max Goldstein, Explorable Explanations. At the url:
  6. David Gooding. Some Historical Encouragement for TTC: Alchemy, the Calculus and Electromagnetism. Presented at the 'Thinking Though Computing' workshop held at Warwick, November 2-3, 2007. At the url:
  7. William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, 1910. Online at the url:
  8. Bruno Latour, The Promises of Constructivism, In Don Ihde and Evan Selinger (Eds.), Chasing Technoscience: Matrix for Materiality (pp. 27-46). Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003.
  9. Patrick E Shrout, Epilogue: The Art and Science of Cause and Effect, In J. Pearl, Causality: Models, Reasoning, and Inference, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 401-428, 2009
  10. The Warwick Leverhulme Bridges Programme, Bridging the Mathematical and Social Sciences. At the url: