I am reading a critique of a writer on empiricism where the author states that empiricism only tells us sequence of events or informs our mind what the cause and effects are but we can not perceive a specific relation between the two which he calls causality? Giving an example from scientific experiment about boiling water, the author opines that "the empirical side of the experiment does not disclose that boiling is produced because the temperature reached a specific degree". What is this 'causality' which we don't comprehend through sense experience? After all, if we know that a certain equation describes\models temperature behaviour in water (i.e. heat conduction equation), will it be possible to determine this equation without sense experience?

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    The "skeptical empiricist" assume that we cannot "perceive" causal connections: we perceive only events and "regularities" but the causal connection is an assumption that we force upon perceived events. We may be wrong (in the future) about e.g. our assumption that the sun will rise every morning. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 1 '18 at 9:19
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    For sure, an "equation" is not something that we perceive, but a very complex intelelctual construct, i.e. a theoretical assumption that may be wrong. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 1 '18 at 9:20
  • Having said that, the "sense for regularities" is very very "inside" our own nature of living being. Every time that the tiger smell the tracks of the gazelle inside the forest, she assumes that there is the gazelle near by: if the tiger would be a "skeptical empiricist" ... tigers will be died out from millenia. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 1 '18 at 9:22

The idea that we cannot see or 'perceive' causal connections is historically most closely associated with Hume. Hume's point was that the concept of causation as ordinarily used contains the assumption that causes necessitate their effects. That given the cause, the effect cannot but occur. In the standard example, when one billiard ball (A) strikes another (B), then (A) makes (B) move. (A) propels (B) across the table.

Hume asks sceptically : you saw the movements on the table but what else did you see ? Did you see (A) make (B) move ? No, you only saw (A)'s coming into contact with (B) and (B)'s subsequently moving. You did not see and could not have seen (A)'s necessitating (B)'s movement. What would it be like to see, to perceive, necessity ?

In a sense this is plainly right or seems so to me. A natural comment by anyone who concedes Hume's point is to respond that one did not see (A) make (B) move, one only saw the movement; but one inferred that (A) made (B) move. This is a claim that Hume can readily grant.

However, if Hume's claim is that there is no non-inferential perception of causation, it will turn out by parity of reasoning that we strictly, non-inferentially perceive virtually nothing. The thesis of the theory-ladennesss of observation is widely accepted. There is no, or hardly any, perception that is not informed by background beliefs.

Suppose someone points out to me a poker. It is glowing red. Somebody applies a piece of paper to it, and the paper ignites. Someone else moves to grasp the poker, then suddenly retreats. It would be natural in this situation to say that I can see that the poker is hot. But of course I cannot non-inferentially see heat; heat is not an object of sight.

The upshot is that Hume can have his point about our inability to see causation but only on condition that he removes inference from all our perceptual experience. If he does this, it will turn out that strict, non-inferential seeing, or perceiving in general, will yield nothing like what we take our perceptual experience to be. Cutting back perception to strictly non-inferential perception across the piece would reduce the content of perception to an experience so thin as to be of drastically limited use to us as agents who use perception to interact with one another and the world.

Further reading :

Ducasse, C. J., 1967, 'Causation: Perceivable? Or Only Inferred?', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 26: 173-9. Ducasse, C. J., 1967, 'How Literally Causation is Perceivable', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 28: 271-3.

  • Thanks. Nice answer. I've never been on top of this one. Baudrillard and his 'Desert of the Real' comes to mind. Most of what we think we see isn't really there. – PeterJ Mar 1 '18 at 13:05
  • @PeterJ. Comment much appreciated - Geoff. – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 1 '18 at 13:10
  • +1. Very neat stroke. My comment is not to disagree, no, rather to ask, looking beyond, why do we need causes. One source of the consciousness' tendency to find a cause is pre-inferential (pre-cognitive). Necessity (which cause is due to) dwells only in hypothetical, potential events; facts can never be necessary for consciousness, they just are. To be necessary, there must be a shortage or negativness of being, in a form of possibility, for example. – ttnphns Mar 1 '18 at 14:07
  • (cont.) Seeing a collision of these two billiard balls my consciousness automatically selects not to be this idle fact but to become a meaning of it, in a form of "what might the cut-of-the-world be where that happening is possible". There arises a room for hypotheses, including causal one, and that room is quickly filled through cognitive process such as inferences. Note that for consciousness itself "possible"="necessary", "factual"="needless". – ttnphns Mar 1 '18 at 14:08
  • (cont.) Another source of the tendency to see a cause is inferential and is due to our knowing the world of objects as instrumental. Since we know the ultimate aim of billiard game and therefore know its rules - which are mechanical by "taste", we prescribe the ball the particular essense of a mechanical shell. Essense is what "pre-exists in order to..." If billiard weren't mechanical, other causes, for example occult, could be ascribed to ball collisions. – ttnphns Mar 1 '18 at 14:08

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