The structure of causality

People often talk as if A causes B, but rarely is that the case. Rather, it is A, combined with R, S, T, … that cause B. That is, sufficient causes are almost always complex (having many elements). A causes B is a kind of short-hand, which can be paraphrased as ‘A is the relevant cause of B’, i.e., in the given context, A is the thing which makes sense to add or remove so as to bring about or stop B.

So, when arguing over whether A or R causes B, both arguers can be correct. That is, if A is added, B will occur, or if R is added, B will occur. (Or, depending on the context, if A is removed, B will cease, or if R is removed, B will cease.)

This becomes especially important when discussing things like economics, sociology, or medicine (i.e., complex systems) where there are lots of variable parts. In these cases, it might be the case that two seemingly contrary theories about ‘the cause’ are both correct (if A or R are removed, B will cease, say), and so the real debate is just about which approach should be pursued.

My hunch is that this basic aspect of causality isn’t appreciated enough in much debate in these sorts of fields.

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  1. Pingback: What is the cause of the obesity epidemic? | Anthony Burgoyne

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