Source: p 83-84 Top. Causation: A Very Short Introduction (1 ed 2013) by Stephen Mumford, Rani Lill Anjum.

Making the right inferences

There is at least one attempt to explain what unites all the plurality of things we call causes without tacitly admitting there is a worldly essence to causation. What is common to all causal truths is that we use them to make a certain kind of inference.

If a match is struck, we can infer that it will light. If a window is hit by a rock, we can infer that it will break. And if an economy has received an increased money supply, we can infer that it will undergo further inflation. As with the standard pluralist position, these inferences are about various specific kinds of events but we assume that there is no worldly essence that they all share. There is thus nothing that they all have in common that we could call causation. But we call those things causal that we use in explanation and prediction of one natural phenomenon with another. Aristotle’s four causes might then count as such.

This inferentialist position thus escapes one form of criticism against pluralism. The criticism could take the form of a dilemma. Either there is nothing that unites a resembling family, in virtue of which it is the causal family, or, if there is something that unites the family, then this looks very much like an essence of causation. [1.] The inferentialist view attempts to unite the family of causes not in virtue of them having a mind-independent, worldly essence, but in virtue of the epistemological facts of how we use them in our thinking. [End of 1.]

[p 84:] But here there is an obvious issue. What makes something causal is not a fact about the world itself but something about our view on the world. Calling something causation just says something about how we think about it and what use we make of it to draw inferences.

So the inferentialist has avoided the dilemma faced by pluralism, but now faces another. Either such inferences really are about nothing more than our thoughts or they are about something happening in the world itself. If the former, then inferentialism is a form of anti-realism about causation. It just makes causation a feature of our thoughts: perhaps a figment of our imagination. If the latter, then isn’t there something about the world that makes such inferences useful or broadly reliable? Don’t we infer from one kind of fact to another precisely because that inference is often borne out? And isn’t the most reasonable explanation of why such an inference is borne out simply that the two phenomena are causally related?

  1. Why cannot 1 (the explanation for Inferentialism) equally apply to Pluralism to explain the underlying uniter of Pluralism? I.e.: cannot we argue that pluralism 'unite[s] the family of causes' in virtue of the epistemological facts of how we use them in our thinking?
  • I think the passage you cite is vulnerable to criticism. for example, what is an "epitemological fact"? that term strikes me as maybe nonsensical, insofar as "facts" are not a matter of epistemology. there are facts as to how we use our vocabularies, but I don't think they are "epitemological facts". they're scientific facts about the world, just like facts about electrons. – user20153 Sep 20 '16 at 20:54
  • a second criticism: the alleged dichotomy between inferences being about "nothing more than our thoughts" v. "something happening in the world itself" is a false one. it presupposes representationalism in both cases. But inference is just a movement, so to speak; it does not need to be "about" anything. it just has to be useful. – user20153 Sep 20 '16 at 21:00

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