Lessons From The Context Sensitivity of Causal Talk

Eric Swanson
2010 Journal of Philosophy  
Suppose we have a theory of singular causation according to which () Caesar's birth was a cause of his death. is true. Charge: It offends common sense to say that Caesar's birth was a cause of his death. Response: e assertibility conditions of causal claims are affected by conversational context. Even if () is true, in normal contexts it will be uninformative, or misleading, or not a suitable answer to the sorts of questions we are interested in. And general pragmatic principles explain why
more » ... t would offend common sense to assert even true sentences that are uninformative, misleading or not topical. So it is no mark against a theory of causation that it predicts that () and certain other odd sounding sentences are true. is response, prominent in the work of Lewis (a, -; , ), Bennett (, -), and others, is based on the plausible idea that some distinctions made in natural language need not-indeed, should not-be re ected in metaphysics. Natural language does distinguish between Caesar's birth and Brutus's stabbing, with respect to being a cause of Caesar's death, but perhaps our metaphysics of causation should not. If we pursue this line, as I think we should, then we must ask which natural language distinctions do constrain our metaphysics, and how. ese questions are especially important for distinctions that are sensitive to features of conversational context, because we should not inadvertently impute the effects of such context sensitivity to our metaphysics. is paper starts by arguing that ordinary causal talk is far more sensitive to conversational context than has been recognized to date. I then formulate a principle that helps characterize that context sensitivity. I argue that this principle explains why some putative overgenerated causes are never felicitously counted, in conversation, as causes, and I argue that a plausibly strengthened version of the principle explains at least some of the oddness of 'systematic causal overdetermination. ' ese explanations are a natural extension of the line that Lewis, Bennett, and others take with (): when we are confronted with linguistic data that threaten to make trouble for our metaphysics, we try to give a plausible explanation of the data that does not require any changes to our metaphysics. When we are successful, we are not obligated to change the metaphysics. e linguistic explanations of () and many other examples are oen seen as a boon to metaphysics-a For helpful discussion and comments on earlier dras, thanks to Ned Hall, Sarah Moss, Bob Stalnaker, Judy omson, Steve Yablo, and an anonymous referee for the Journal of Philosophy. M , L a and , and B  offer such theories. This is the penultimate version. Please consult the official version in the Journal of Philosophy.
doi:10.5840/jphil2010107517 fatcat:6z74lwbmjzbvdjuflpi7uahggm