Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A Note on Events and Causation

Presently I’m reading GettingCauses From Powers by Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum (and have finished six chapters out of ten).  I expect to blog more about this book, of which I think very highly.  I just wanted to very briefly comment on events, inspired by the treatment they are getting so far in the book.

Years ago, influenced by reading (later) Russell and Whitehead, I acquired the notion that (all else equal) there is an attraction to an ontology which gave a leading role to events rather than one primarily featuring substances (or objects) and their properties.  There seemed to be more potential for explaining the dynamic aspects of nature (including mind).

But while there has been an active modern debate on the nature of events, the most common depictions don’t seem to offer specific advantages to an event-focused ontology.  To greatly simplify, it seems philosophers would model events either as property exemplifications, in which case they are in danger of seeming much like static facts or states of affairs; or else events would be associated with spacetime locations, in which case they are little distinguished from objects, which are the quintessential occupiers of spacetime.  (The SEP article on events is here; an IEP article with additional focus on the theories of Kim, Davidson, and Lewis is here).  These sorts of models of events don’t seem to bring differentiated resources to metaphysical theorizing.

The goal of the Getting Causes From Powers book is to develop a theory of causation based on dispositional properties, or powers.  While powers play the leading role, their theory incorporates an intriguing view of events (at least causal events:  they don’t take a position on whether there are other sorts).  Specifically, causal events, which are manifestations of powers, are temporally extended processes.  The authors reject as misguided the typical “two-event” conception of causation, where cause is temporally prior to effect, in part because no one has a compelling account of how you get from one to the other.  Rather causes and effects are simultaneous – they are two aspects of a process which brings about a change.  Very Whiteheadian!

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