cause, causal explanation
In non-specialist contexts, to ask for the cause of some particular happening is to ask what made it happen, or brought it about. To give a causal explanation is to answer such questions, usually by specifying some prior event, condition, or state of affairs without which the problematic event would not have occurred. In more specialist, scientific or philosophical contexts, the concepts of cause and causal explanation have been the focus of sustained attempts to achieve analytical rigour. Medieval European thought on this topic was dominated by Aristotle's doctrine of the ‘four causes’. These were efficient cause (roughly corresponding to the commonsense view just outlined); material cause (the nature or composition of a being); formal cause (its form or structure); and, fourthly, final cause (its goal or purpose).
Advocates of the scientific revolution which took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were prone to anti-Aristotelian polemics. In the increasingly successful mechanical view of nature there was no place for explanations in terms of goals or purposes, except in the domain of human intentional activity. Indeed, some radical advocates of mechanical explanation (for example Thomas Hobbes ) extended its scope even to this latter domain. Empiricists, in particular, were hostile to all attempts at explanation in terms of supposed entities or properties not accessible to observational or experimental determination. The search for not only final but also material and formal cause, as these were commonly understood, should be abandoned in favour of a programme of explanation in terms of efficient causality.
Empiricism became the dominant philosophical representation of scientific method, and it has been particularly influential in shaping popular views of the nature of science. The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume is generally credited with the empiricist view of efficient causality as a regular association, or ‘constant conjunction’ of phenomena in our experience. If events of one type (B) are regularly preceded by events of another type (A), then we may identify A as the cause of B. But this drastic narrowing-down of causal explanation to what could be established by the evidence of the senses only served to underline the gap between scientific claims and their basis in evidence. Hume famously posed the intractable problem of induction ; namely, how do we know that regularities in our experience so far will be continued into the future? Or, more generally, how can we make justifiable inferences from our finite evidence to the universal claims embodied in causal laws? Hume appeared content to acknowledge that no such rational justification could be found, but empiricist philosophy since Hume has been littered with failed attempts to solve this problem. It should be noted that, in the absence of a solution to the problem of induction, empiricist philosophy can give no rational justification for counterfactuals , scientific prediction, or for the application of scientific knowledge in new technologies.
But there are other difficulties faced by the empiricist view of causality, now commonly referred to as the ‘covering law’ account (that is, the event to be explained is shown to be ‘covered’ by a law linking events of that type with events of some other type). The most obvious of these is that events may be regularly associated with one another without one being the cause of the other (in the sense of bringing it about, or making it happen). The association may be coincidental; or, more likely, there may be some more complicated causal connection between them (such as that both are effects of some so-far undetected common cause). A related problem is that even where the evidence suggests a direct causal relation between two phenomena, it may not be possible to establish which is the cause, and which is the effect.
Another problem for the empiricist view of causality is that constant conjunctions in the flow of our experience of nature are actually quite unusual. For example, seeds commonly germinate as temperature rises in the spring. However, they do not always do so. Empiricist philosophers respond to this kind of problem by making the account more complicated; several conditions (such as sufficient moisture, changes in day-length, past exposure of the seed to sub-zero temperature, and so forth) may have to be specified in order that the constant conjunction may be stated as a universal law. Which of these conditions we call the cause will depend on the context of the inquiry, as will those which may be regarded as given, or background conditions. It should be noted, however, that the process of drawing up this list of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions will involve experimental methods which are not applicable in many fields of inquiry, including (many would argue) large parts of social science. Here, scientists working under the influence of empiricist philosophy have devised substitutes for experimentation, usually involving analysis of statistical relationships.
Yet another difficulty with the empiricist view of causality is that it does not adequately represent a large and important part of what scientists take themselves to be doing when they search for explanations. For example, observed regularities governing the germination of seeds may be only the starting-point for a scientific investigation of what makes seeds germinate. This investigation, for example, would take us into the internal structure of the seed, its tissues and cellular structure, the genetic mechanisms which regulate the secretion of growth-hormones, and the biochemistry of their action on cell-nuclei. Most of the great conceptual innovations of modern science-gravitation, atomic theory, natural selection, quantum mechanics, and so on-have consisted in postulating underlying mechanisms which explain observable regularities. Contrary to empiricist rhetoric, therefore, material and formal causes continue to play a major role in science. Most modern anti-empiricist philosophers agree on this state of affairs-although realists and conventionalists disagree about how to interpret the situation. The former tend to respect the achievements of science but try to develop more appropriate accounts of the rationality of causal explanation than those offered by the empiricists. Conventionalists tend to see the gap between the evidential basis on the one hand, and the bold and speculative claims of science on the other, as grounds for a more sceptical view of scientific knowledge-claims, seeing these as socio-culturally relative, or as shaped by vested interests.
In the human sciences, the philosophical influence of empiricism has been very strong, especially in Britain and the United States. In the absence of any general utility of experimental method, the search for causal explanation has tended to take the form of statistical analysis of large-scale data-sets. Though methods of data collection and analysis have become extremely sophisticated, it is arguable that the concepts of causality commonly involved still suffer from the general limitations of the empiricist covering law model. However, such methods are also criticized in some quarters, as inappropriate to the distinctive subject-matter of the social sciences. Human social action is purposive and symbolically meaningful. This is the one residual domain in which Aristotelian final causes have not been (and, these critiques argue, should not be) driven out by the advance of modern scientific method. Various traditions of interpretive sociology and anthropology, which are rooted historically in German neo-Kantianism , take this view. In its more extreme forms, interpretivism denies the applicability of causal explanation and so of quantitative methods in the social sciences, favouring instead so-called qualitative methods aimed at interpretive understanding of social communication. See also causal modelling ; conventionalism ; dependent variable ; independent variable ; interpretation ; realism ; sequence analysis.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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