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Project on Causal Understanding

This is the project statement of the AHRC Project on Causal Understand, which ran between 2004 and 2008, hosted by the Department of Philosopy at Warwick University and the Department of Psychology at Queen's University Belfast.


Causal thinking plays a pivotal role in our understanding of our surroundings in almost all contexts - physical, psychological, moral, social, and historical. Given its importance, it is not surprising that questions about causal knowledge and causal reasoning have become a particular focus of attention in recent psychology. Much of the work in this area draws heavily on philosophy in formulating competing models for testing causal understanding. However, as is sometimes pointed out by the very researchers involved in this work, the interpretation of findings obtained so far, and the development of new empirical research paradigms, are hampered by the lack of a common focus between philosophers and psychologists.

The problem, put briefly, is this. There has been much excellent work in philosophy (specifically in the philosophy of science) on the metaphysics of causation, centring, for instance, on debates between different kinds of realists and reductionists about causation, or on questions as to what kinds of things causation is a relation between. Yet, philosophical work addressed specifically to the epistemological and cognitive question of what causal understanding actually consists in is far less developed. Consequently, the philosophy appealed to by psychologists often yields unhelpful distinctions and unfruitful questions, and many of them in fact tend to focus on heuristics for arriving at causal judgments rather than the nature of causal understanding itself.

The Project on Causal Understanding aims to address this problem by bringing together philosophers and psychologists who between them will devise a substantive theoretical and empirical framework within which to conduct research on the nature of causal understanding. The dividends that this type of approach can yield for both disciplines are evident from two other areas of research in which there is already a strong and tremendously productive tradition of exchange and collaboration between philosophers and psychologists, namely the areas of 'intuitive physics' and 'theory of mind'. In each of these areas, dialogue between the two disciplines has helped in framing traditional philosophical problems in a new way, at the same time as generating new avenues for empirical and theoretical research in psychology. Research on 'intuitive physics' and 'theory of mind', however, does not just provide a model for the kind of cross-disciplinary project we envisage. A central ingredient in the background of this research, often lacking explicit acknowledgement, is the idea that the types of physical and psychological understanding studied are of an essentially causal character, and many of the key questions that still remain open in both areas can in fact be reframed as questions about the specific role that causal understanding plays in thought about the physical and the mental. By explicitly establishing the topic of causal understanding as the focus of a similarly cross-disciplinary approach, we therefore hope that the proposed project will also be able to shed new light on these important areas of research.

Research Questions

On one view, stemming from Kant, causal thought structures experience. On another, stemming from Hume, experience itself is independent of causal thought; the latter gets tagged on separately. Connected with each of these views, we often find a particular epistemological view. On the first, experience presents us directly with an objective, mind-independent world. On the second, experience is at best neutral about the objectivity of the 'world' it presents us with. Underlying both sets of views there is, then, a shared intuition, namely that there is a deep connection between how we explain the relation between causal thought and experience, and how we answer the question of whether or not experience presents us with the world as it is independently of us.

Although we have formulated these views, and the intuition they have in common, in abstract philosophical terms, the issues they raise are in fact alive in a wide range of questions tackled by empirical research in psychology. Our project is to bring out how they are implicated in and inform empirical questions in a way that will both help to unpack and give substance to philosophical intuitions in this area, and generate new avenues for psychological research. Guiding questions that will be used to focus cross-disciplinary work here will include:

  • Which manifestations of sensitivity to causal relations should count as a manifestation of causal understanding?
  • What is the relationship between the development of causal understanding and the development of capacities such as perception, memory and intentional action?
  • How is causal understanding implicated in grasp of specific concepts we think of as critical to structuring our grip on the idea of an objective world, and of our place in it, e.g. the concepts of a physical object, the past, and the self?
  • In what way is causal understanding related to the capacity to engage in counterfactual reasoning?
  • What is the relationship between the causal understanding involved in common sense reasoning about the material and mental world, and the causal concepts used in science?

Developmental psychology has always provided a particularly fascinating and fruitful focus for unpacking connections between epistemological, conceptual and empirical issues. The case of causal thought is no exception. For that reason, the core empirical input to the project will be developmental.