Friday, January 14, 2005

Causal History vs. Causal Powers

A while back I asked: does the past matter?, i.e. would it make any significant difference if the world had been created (false memories and all) just five minutes ago? My answer was 'no'. We would still be alive and human, and our words would still have meanings. What matters is how things are, not how they came to be.

I speculated that this position would commit me to rejecting all sorts of causal theories. But I now realise the problem is not quite so sweeping. Instead, I need to distinguish between placing importance on causal histories and causal powers, and reject only the former.

The difference is highlighted nicely by Fodor in Psychosemantics (p.45):
God could make a genuine electron, or diamond, or tiger, or person, because being an electron or a diamond or a tiger or a person isn't a matter of being the effect of the right kind of causes; rather, it's a matter of being the cause of the right kind of effects. And similarly, I think, for all the other natural kinds. Causal powers are decisively relevant to a taxonomy of natural kinds because such taxonomies are organized in behalf of causal explanation. Not all taxonomies have that end in view, however, so not all taxonomies classify by causal powers. Even God couldn't make a gen-u-ine United States ten cent piece; only the U.S. Treasury Department can do that.

But is that last sentence true? If the world were created 5 minutes ago, would that mean that there are no genuine ten cent pieces? I'm not convinced. But perhaps such a radical change of context would alter what we mean by those words.* So perhaps the key question is whether in our present context God could create a genuine U.S. ten-cent piece, and there I'm more inclined to agree with Fodor after all. Being made by the U.S. Treasury Dept is (an essential) part of what we mean by 'genuine U.S. ten-cent piece'. So it looks like causal histories can be relevant after all. (Just not in the cases I discussed in my previous post, I think.)

* = Come to think of it, this statement itself seems to imply some sort of causal [history] theory of meaning. For if meaning depends on external context, which in turn depends upon causal histories (as it must if there has been any 'radical change' in the present case), then clearly meaning must at least partially depend upon causal histories.

Huh, maybe the past does matter after all. I wasn't expecting to conclude that when I started writing this post. Oh well.


  1. I think you have your finger mostly on the issue anyway, but to put it my way : it is a problem of reference. Just as brains in vats don't correctly refer to objects in our world, people in a 5-minute-old world don't correctly refer to their causal history when talking about the distant past. Without realising it, they are incorrectly referring to causal chains which while true propositions in terms of the laws of the new universe, are not facts by virtue of not corresponding to how things actually came about.


    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

  2. I think God could create a genuine ten-cent piece. I think what matters is not the causal history of the object but the consensus of the people who use it.

    (You can look at this from both angles, I like this one)
    A tiger is not a tiger solely because of what it can affect, but because we agree that it's qualities constitute what we call a 'tiger'.

    A ten cent piece isn’t worth ten cents because it came from the Treasury Department or even because they said so, it is because they said so and we agreed. All we would need to do to make God’s coin genuine is agree that it was.

    Huh, maybe the past does matter after all. I wasn't expecting to conclude that when I started writing this post. Oh well.That happens to me all the time, it’s a sign of an unattached, open mind. :-)

    Posted by Illusive Mind

  3. I agree that we could agree to value the divine coin at ten cents. But I think that is a subtly different question. Rather, given what we presently mean by a "genuine U.S. ten-cent piece", isn't the causal history (viz., being made by the appropriate government dept) an essential part of that meaning? If so, then it seems we must conclude that although God could make a ten-cent piece, it wouldn't be a genuine one. It would be a counterfeit; no more genuine than if *I* made a replica coin.

    MP, I had previously wanted to deny a causal [history] theory of reference/intentionality, and instead go for something like Dennett's approach (I may have outlined this in my previous post). Now I'm not sure which way I want to go. I've started reading Dennett's "Intentional Stance", so will no doubt post more on the topic in the near future... 

    Posted by Richard

  4. I think another indication that the past does matter, in some ways, is revealed by evaluating the lives of the people in each scenario.

    Imagine a person who had achieved some great personal goal in the past. Imagine another world where God created the person, with false memories of achieving that goal. It seems to me that the person in the first world has a far better life than the person in the second world, even though they are identical down to the last atom.


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