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Causal CognitionA Multidisciplinary Debate$

Dan Sperber, David Premack, and Ann James Premack

Print publication date: 1996

Print ISBN-13: 9780198524021

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198524021.001.0001

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(p.395) Part VI The legitimacy of domain-specific causal understandings: philosophical considerations

(p.395) Part VI The legitimacy of domain-specific causal understandings: philosophical considerations

Causal Cognition
Oxford University Press

(p.396) (p.397) Foreword to Part VI

The existence, character, and epistemological relevance of causality have been debated by modern philosophers since Hume and Kant (not to mention the ancient philosophers—see Chapter 18 in Part VIII). However, the conference was not about causality itself, but about the ways in which it is mentally represented. Of course, it would have been of great interest to evaluate representations of causality in the light of a generally accepted picture of causality itself. However, there is no consensus on causality among philosophers. Indeed, there are few domains in philosophy where differences of opinions are so radical, many-faceted, and enduring.

One issue in the philosophy of causality, though, was of special relevance to the conference. Many participants were stressing the domain-specific character of much of causal cognition. Physical causation, biological causation, intentional causation, and social causation are represented, it was argued, by means of different mental devices, each using proprietary conceptual resources. The legitimacy of such domain- or level-specific approaches to causality has been a topic of discussion in both the philosophy of science and the philosophy of mind. The two chapters in this section are representative of these discussions.

Pettit’s ‘Causality at higher levels’ revolves around a dilemma in philosophy of science. Modern science—including cognitive science-adopts a physicalist point of view, according to which anything that has causal powers has them by virtue of its microphysical properties. But if causal powers are microphysical powers, are there any causal facts left to be uncovered by the special sciences at higher levels of reality? What is the value of common-sense causal claims, which all concern levels well above the microphysical? Pettit analyses various types of causal relationships and argues for the legitimacy of causal claims at higher levels. His discussion ends with a favourable evaluation of common-sense understanding. It thus contrasts with Jacob’s discussion of causal claims in psychological matters, which does not have a similarly optimistic conclusion.

(p.398) The problem of higher-level causality raised by Pettit is particularly difficult at the psychological level. Common sense explains behaviour by invoking beliefs and desires. More specifically, it sees the content of an agent’s mental states as causing his or her behaviour. However, content does not fit easily in a physicalist view of the world. Jacob, in ‘The role of content in the explanation of behaviour’, reviews the main proposals developed in contemporary philosophy of mind regarding the causal role of content. He shows that all these proposals have deep problems. A clear implication of Jacob’s discussions is that we do not really know to what extent and by what means common-sense psychological understanding (‘theory of mind’) succeeds in being genuine understanding.