To appear in Roessler., ed. Perception, Causation and Objectivity: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology

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To appear in Roessler., ed. Perception, Causation and Objectivity: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology (Oxford University Press)

Causal Perception and Causal Cognition*

Draft 8/13/08
Jim Woodward


1. Introduction

What is the role of causal perception in learning about causal relationships and in achieving causal understanding of why things behave as they do? Of course, perception plays a role in the acquisition of much and perhaps all causal knowledge. (Think of using sight to read a text in which one is told about a causal relationship by a reliable authority or of using some statistical or causal modeling procedure to reach a causal conclusion on the basis of data produced by an “observational” study.) My interest in this essay, however, is in a much narrower class of cases which are often described as involving the “perception of causation” . Very roughly, it is characteristic of these cases that it appears one can “read off” certain causal relationships from perceptual cues (often but not always visual cues involving spatio- temporal relationships1.) Moreover, one does this in a way that, phenomenologically at least, seems to have the directness, immediacy and non-inferential character of other cases in which one detects properties and relations through sensory experience. The perception of causation in a simple collision, in which one appears to see the impact of one billiard ball cause another to move, is a paradigmatic example, but there are many more – it appears one can see one object push or pull another along or see the impact of a moving object (a thrown stone) cause another (a bottle) to break (cf. Scholl and Tremoulet, 2000). Similarly one can apparently see that one object is supported by another that a moving ball has been blocked by a solid barrier and will not pass through it, that a key will or will not fit into a lock of a certain shape, and so on2.

By no means all causal relationships seem to be detected in this way. Suppose that I am interested in whether a drug will cure a certain illness. I conduct a randomized controlled trial in which the drug is supplied to a treatment group with the illness and withheld from a control group also with the illness. If I observe a higher incidence of recovery in the treatment group, I may be entitled to infer that the drug does indeed cause recovery but in reaching this conclusion I do not seem to rely on causal perception in the sense illustrated above— whether the drug is efficacious is not something that I can read off from geometrical or spatio- temporal cues in the way in which I can apparently read off the role of the impact of the first billiard ball in causing the second to move.

My interest in this essay is in the relationship between the kinds of causal learning illustrated by these two examples and more generally in the way in which the experience of causal perception influences causal cognition and the way we conceptualize causation. I will suggest that the differences between the abilities that, on the one hand, are exhibited in tasks involving causal perception, and, on the other hand, causal judgment tasks like the inference to drug efficacy closely tracks two very different ways of thinking about causation (and about causal learning and causal representation) that one finds in the philosophical and psychological literatures.

In speaking of these “two different ways of thinking” about causation, I emphasize that what I have in mind is, in the first instance, how various researchers (particularly in philosophy and psychology) conceptualize (or theorize about) casual relationships themselves as they exist in the world or about the causal concepts/ representations that people employ. At this stage, I want to leave it open, as a further, independent question, whether these conceptualizations are accurate or defensible. Whether plausible or not as general accounts of causation and causal representation, I believe it is nonetheless true that an important part of the motivation for each of these ways of thinking can be found in the psychological phenomena and capacities for causal learning that I will be describing.

The first approach, which I take to be grounded in part3 in experiences having to do with causal perception, involves what I will call a geometrical/mechanical conception of causation. This way of thinking about causation focuses on cases in which there is a physical process connecting cause and effect and, more broadly, on phenomena that are mediated by contact -mechanical forces and in which spatio –temporal or geometrical relationships play an important role. Causal interactions themselves are conceptualized in terms of contact forces and energy/momentum exchange. This contrasts with a second way of thinking about causation involving a difference –making conception. This second conception focuses on causal judgments that are sensitive to contingency or difference-making information (roughly, information that compares what happens to the effect in presence versus the absence of its putative cause). Such judgments may not be guided, at least in any direct way, by spatio- temporal or contact-mechanical information. The randomized trial involving the drug provides an illustration—the trial shows that the drug makes a difference to recovery but does not exhibit a connecting process or contact forces mediating the relationship between drug and recovery.

As we shall see, at least as presented in the philosophical literature, there are deep conceptual differences between geometrical/mechanical and difference-making approaches to causation and these lead, in certain cases, to strikingly different causal judgments. Notoriously, these conceptual differences have made it difficult for philosophers to combine the two approaches into a single, integrated account of causation4. Parallel to this, there is also empirical evidence for various sorts of dissociations between judgments guided by causal perception (and based on geometrical/ mechanical cues) and judgments based on difference-making or contingency information: that is, the psychological structures that underlie causal perception seem to be at least in part distinct from those that underlie causal judgments based on difference-making considerations and these different structures can lead to judgments or outputs that conflict with each other. My conjecture is that this parallelism is not accidental—I think that various features of causal perception help to motivate or make plausible the intuitions that seem to support geometrical/ mechanical accounts of causation, while the kinds of judgments that are based on information about difference-making play a similar role in motivating difference-making theories. The difficulty of putting these two philosophical approaches together into a single integrated account of causation is connected to (and in part a reflection of) the fact that the psychological processes and judgments with which they are associated also differ in important ways. Nonetheless and despite these facts, adult human causal thinking is characterized by an ability to (often) move back and forth relatively smoothly between these two conceptions – they are relatively well-integrated in adult causal thinking. (There is nothing inevitable about this—as we shall see, in non-human primates and perhaps in human infants, these two conceptions may not be well integrated).

These considerations lead to a number of questions, of both philosophical and psychological interest, that will be explored in this essay. Is one of these two ways of thinking about causation more fundamental than or prior to the other, either developmentally or conceptually? For example, is it true, as some psychologists claim, that a broadly geometrical/mechanical way of thinking about causation, derived from experiences with causal perception, and leading us to conceptualize causation in terms of “forces”, serves as a basis for all human causal cognition, including cognition based on difference-making considerations ? Or is the difference-making conception and the kind of contingency-based learning associated with it instead more fundamental? Or, as a third alternative, is it more accurate to think of the two conceptions and the abilities associated with them, as instead developing in tandem, mutually influencing or bootstrapping one another? More generally, my hope is that a better understanding of the relationship, both conceptually and developmentally, between the way of thinking about causation naturally suggested by causal perception and the way suggested by difference -making causal judgments will help to clarify both approaches.

The remainder of this essay is organized as follows. Sections 2 - 5 set out some of the differences between difference-making and geometrical/ mechanical accounts within philosophy, the (apparently) very different intuitions on which they draw, and the different core phenomena they attempt to describe. Parallels with theories within psychology that focus on causal perception (broadly understood) and theories that instead emphasize contingency based causal judgment are noted. Sections 6-8 then describe some relevant psychological results concerning dissociations between casual perception and contingency-based causal judgment and between causal perception and action and attempts to connect these with the ideas introduced in Sections 2-5. Section 9 then takes up some more general issues about the significance of causal perception for our understanding of causation and our capacities for causal cognition.

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