Thursday, May 31, 2012

Causal Knowledge is Primitive for Russell

I was rereading portions of Russell’s Human Knowledge (and making comparisons to The Analysis of Matter) with the goal of understanding his arguments regarding the role of structure in linking experience to the physical world. But I was struck by something else.  At the end of the book, his conclusions regarding how scientific inferences are justified trace this question back to the prior question of how we gain knowledge of causation. Causation is presumed in science, but causation is itself not explicated or justified within science: it is a pre-scientific concept.

A main project in Human Knowledge is to identify those unacknowledged postulates which undergird our scientific pursuit of knowledge: “what must we be supposed to know, in addition to particular observed facts, if scientific inferences are to be valid?” (p.513). He ends up with five postulates in total, but notably it turns out all of them “involve the concept of ‘cause’” (p.508).

 How do we know these postulates, then, if indeed we do know them, given their reliance on our knowledge of causation? Russell can only point to our gaining a primitive grasp on cause via our pre-linguistic biological know-how: “Knowledge of general connections between facts has its biological origins in animal expectations “(p.514). It was advantageous in evolutionary terms for our animal expectations to roughly conform to processes in the physical world. The physical world apparently has causal laws, and animal inferences are adapted to these.

 When evaluating the thesis of empiricism, Russell understands that strictly speaking this kind of knowledge is something beyond experience (at least as these terms are usually employed in the debate): “Either, therefore, we know something independently of experience, or science is moonshine” (p.524).

5 comments:

Allen said...

But adaptation is purely physical process - isn't it?

And thus isn't appealing to adaption *ultimately* just appealing to the same causal physical laws that we are trying to explain our knowledge of?

Which would be a somewhat circular argument, wouldn't it?

e.g.: We know about causal physical laws because the actions of those same causal physical laws have *caused* us to have such knowledge...?

My point being - evolution and adaption don't add anything - because they are just labels that we assign to certain physical systems. They reduce to the laws of physics (plus initial conditions).

Ya?

Steve Esser said...

Hi Allen:

It is somewhat circular. We are a participant in the causal processes of the natural world, so that's why we're intimately familiar with causation.

It would be nice if there was a way to make that into a more detailed and interesting story. But when something really is primitive, it can't be given a wholly non-circular analysis I guess.

Q said...

I have the intuition that our understanding of causation is rooted in our own volition.
Typically, we need to play volontarily on parameters to formally identify a causal effect, and the ultimate ground for any causal effect (in particular for distinguishing causality from mere correlation) seems to be our own freedom, which is an alleged warantee of independence.
So in my view the preconditions of knowledge are a differenciation of the cognitive subject from the world, which warranties an independent volition, and which might be more fundamental and 'metaphysical' than some build-in logic resulting from evolution.

Steve Esser said...

Thanks Q. I think there may be a connection as you say between volition and understanding causation if volition is our subjective version of what it is like to be a causal agent.

But I hope for an explanation of causation that works the same for us as for all natural systems.

Q said...

As per my understanding, you are looking for an explanation of our knowledge of natural causes.
My point is that such knowledge is originally instrumental, and it is only by extension (of our theoretical laws) that we assign causality to natural systems in a non-instrumental way.

John Dewey analyses scientific concepts in a similar way: as expectations resulting from our actions.