Monday, December 02, 2013

Why things happen

For many years I was interested in the questions what causes are and what reasons are and how they help explain what happens in the world and understand what people do. Gradually my philosophical interests strayed away from these questions to other issues and my blogs reflect the new paths I have taken. However, I have never lost my sympathy for these old themes and now and then they come back into my mind. Sometimes they simply pop up and sometimes other people let them pop up. The latter was the case for instance when I was asked to give my opinion on an article about Fred Dretske’s theory of mental causation. Much can be said on Dretske’s theory and I, too, have written a critical comment on it, but what I have never forgotten from the book Explaining Behavior. Reasons in a World of Causes, where Dretske expounds his theory, is his view on the concept of cause. Most of what I read soon slips my mind again, but when I happen to think about “cause” for any reason whatsoever one of the first approaches  I always remember is Dretske’s. Especially in practical situations Dretske’s concept is very useful, since it helps disentangle complex occurrences or convoluted argumentations.
In fact, Dretske distinguishes two concepts of cause, namely “triggering cause” and “structuring cause”. When we ask what the causes of a process are, we can answer this question in two ways, so Dretske. Either we can look for the event that triggers the process, and then Dretske speaks of the “triggering cause”; or we can look for the background conditions that made that this process has a certain form or structure, so that it is M1 and not M2 that is the consequence of a certain event or state. Then, Dretske speaks of the “structuring cause”. A temperature drop causing to occur certain events in the thermostat, while in turn these events cause the furnace to ignite, is an example of a triggering cause. The structuring cause is what makes that the thermostat turns the furnace on and does not open to garage door, for instance, when it becomes cold. And this can happen either because the thermostat is wired to the furnace in a certain way, or because the electrician wired it that way. So structuring causes can be of two kinds: “(1) the background conditions that enable the one thing to cause the other or (2) whatever earlier event or condition that brought about these background conditions” (Dretske 1988, 42). There is also a difference in time perspective between a triggering cause and a structuring cause. The former makes that the process takes place now; the latter concerns already existing relationships that have been made in the past. (id., 37-50, 114-115)
Dretske’s distinction is an important philosophical contribution to the discussion on what we mean by “cause”. Moreover, as said, it is also very practical. A car slips in a bend of the road and collides with another car. Was it a mistake by the driver, because he was distracted, or is it a faulty construction of the bend that makes that many cars slip there? Then we ask whether a triggering cause or a structuring cause brought about the accident.
Dretske has made many other important contributions to philosophy, especially to epistemology and to the philosophy of mind. But his idea that had most influence on my thinking is this distinction between triggering and structuring causes, which I often use when it is relevant. It makes that I’ll keep remembering him for Fred Dretske died on July 24 this year, 79 years old.

Sources: my “Dretske and the causality of reasons” on; Fred Dretske, Explaining Behavior. Reasons in a World of Causes, MIT: Cambridge, Mass. etc., 1988.

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