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Members' Weekend 2018, Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th August


Note: More talk transcripts and handounts should be available in the near future. Discussion recording is truncated, but this might get fixed later. In any case, not much of the discussion is lost.

7 speakers tackled what is probably the most fundamental philosophical problem: the nature of causation.


Saturday 18th August

1.30 Registration

1.45 Welcome and Introduction: Fauzia Rahman-Greasley

2.00 Talk 1: Causation: hypothesis or theory?Ann Long
Talk text (PDF format)
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In this talk I offer three ideas characterising my understanding of causation. Firstly, I will situate it generally in an ensemble of ideas which together constitute my world view. Secondly, I will offer a more specific analysis of just the causation idea itself. And thirdly, I will try to explain why I think it's an idea which, at this particular historical moment, is in considerable crisis.

Ann Long is the author of three books: Equality (1988), samizdat distribution; Making God, a New Materialist Theory of the Person (2007), published by Imprint Academic; and Every Morpheme Counts, working title of a third, under construction, which offers a non-reductionist hypothesis as to the 'mechanism' – not genetic but morphemic – whereby language brings about the emergence of human persons from human animals. She has degrees in economics and psychology.

2.45 Talk 2: Causation in infectious disease epidemiologyDr Gordon Nichols
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We are bombarded with information suggesting the causes of diseases and how to prevent them. Infectious disease epidemiology is complex and the multiple causes of infection have a relevance to the examination of other aspects of life. The postulates of Koch and Loeffler, and Bradford Hill's criteria provide fundamental principles for determining causation. Using case studies, I show the small number of initiating causal events belies the underlying multiple criteria involved. These include the microbial, natural, personal and other environments.

Gordon Nichols is a scientist who has worked as a Consultant Epidemiologist within Public Health England. He has contributed to research projects on gastrointestinal infections, food, water and the environment, epidemiology, public health and climate change and has been important in surveillance and outbreak management. He has contributions to international initiatives and has given over 400 scientific presentations, written 31 book chapters and 78 papers in peer reviewed journals. He is a member of the Wycombe Philosophy Association and the Gerrards Cross Philosophy group.

3.30 Beverages in the Common Room

Talk 3: Counterfactual Theories of CausationMichael Donnan
Notes (PDF)
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A counterfactual theory of causation (CTC) is an account of causation in terms, unsurprisingly, of counterfactual statements. A typical formulation would be: Event A is a cause of event B if and only if it is the case that if A had not occurred, then B would not have occurred. Before CTCs could become plausible, two initial problems had to be overcome: first, the problem of ascertaining the truth conditions of counterfactual statements and, second, counterexamples involving cases where potential causes suffer early pre-emption. The first problem was eventually addressed by the development of possible-world semantics. In 1973, David Lewis (1941 – 2001) published a seminal paper in which the second problem was also addressed. However, his proposal had to be revised later under pressure of further problems. The talk will outline Lewis's original and revised CTCs and discuss selected objections to them.

Michael Donnan studied chemistry at Manchester during the 'Swinging Sixties' and, despite a marked maladroitness in the laboratory, actually managed to graduate. He thereupon entered the world of patents and eventually qualified as patent attorney. In his 40s, he sampled an introductory course in philosophy, became captivated by the subject and after much procrastination enrolled as a part-time degree student at Birkbeck College, gaining a BA in 2003 followed by an MA in 2006. For about 8½ years during his retirement he acted as leader of his local U3A philosophy group.

4.45 Short break

4.00 Talk 4: Why? Because...Dr Jonathan Harlow
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If we ask Why something happens, the answer may well start Because (by cause), followed by an explanation. In this talk I contend that there is nothing more to the idea of Causation than that there is some explanation. We can keep the term Cause as a general term, or a placeholder for a specific explanation, as long as we avoid reifying it into some sort of active principle. But 'Causation' is neither itself an explanation, nor a special sort of process.

This approach, via Explanation, eliminates or resolves some of the standard problems such as sequence and negative causation. It is also at once broader and more discriminating than Causation: broader because it allows explanations via motive or evolutionary process; more discriminating because the phrasing of the Why? focuses on the particular aspect for which explanation is desired.

Jonathan Harlow served in the Royal Artillery (National Service) and worked as a government administrator and business manager in Africa and Guyana. He taught History and Economics in a comprehensive school for twenty years and, part-time, at university for ten. Now retired, he is mainly engaged in local history research and writing.

5.35 Short break

Talk 5: We are all talking nonsenseGeoff Oliver

Previous attempts to persuade my PhilSoc friends that I have developed a satisfactory account of causation have been unsuccessful. The problem with my account of causation is that it entails that we are all talking nonsense. I shall attempt to demonstrate that our causal language is not consistent with the way that changes occur in this world. I shall argue that my view is supported by both Hume and Newton.

Geoff Oliver is an independent management system consultant. He assists businesses with the maintenance of management systems that are assessed against international standards. Primarily he works in the fields of quality and environmental management, but has also worked on systems for the management of information, energy, security and the prevention of terrorism. His essay, 'We are all talking nonsense', won the 2017 Chadwick Prize.

6.30 Bar

7.00 Annual Society Dinner, with presentation of Chadwick and Boethius Prizes

9.00 Discussion in Bar


Sunday 19th August

8.00 Breakfast (for Rewley House residents)

9.30 Talk 6: Causation and ResponsibilityBob Stone

Kant identified a problem that needs solving. If, as he supposed – and as seems to me inescapable – everything that happens is caused (or possibly, in some cases, random), including everything we do and think, how do we account for the fact that we feel ourselves to be 'free', and – more importantly for my purposes – hold ourselves accountable for our actions, ready to be blamed for things we do wrong? Is this simply a piece of cognitive dissonance, self-deception, wishful thinking, intellectual dishonesty? Or can we hold both positions at once? Kant's own solution was rather outlandish, but I want to suggest something more plausible – along the lines of our feeling of freedom and responsibility being an essential part of the total causal structure.

Bob Stone is a classicist, who specialised in Greek philosophy at Cambridge, taught classics in schools for 35 years, then  since retiring nine years ago  resumed his philosophical studies with a vengeance. He has done most of the OUDCE online courses, attends 2 or 3 weekly classes every year, as well as 4 or 5 of the weekend courses, and enjoys holding forth, both orally and in writing, on any philosophical topic under the sun. The OUDCE is now his spiritual home.

10.15 Talk 7: How well might a pragmatist reframing of causation help us out of some of our metaphysical muddles?Simon Borrington

Our prevailing paradigm for understanding complex entities leads us to a position that can be described as 'ontological reductivism', in which we tend to assume that the micro-constituent elements of a complex entity in some way have greater reality than the entity that they constitute. This lop-sided understanding of reality, I suggest, relates to our limited definition of cause as only being 'efficient cause'. Considering arguments for an emergentist account of consciousness, I will explore the idea of 'Downward Causation' and discuss some of its metaphysical implications for reconfiguring our understanding of causality.

El-Hani & Pihlstrom (2002): Emergence Theories & Pragmatic Realism
Emmeche et al (2000): Levels, emergence & three versions of downward causation;
Kim (1999): Making Sense of Emergence;
Pihlstrom (2002): The Re-emergence of the Emergence Debate;
Tabaczek (2013): The Metaphysics of Downward Causation: Rediscovering the formal cause.

Simon Borrington studied philosophy as a mature student at Middlesex Polytechnic back in the 80s when it was a centre for the 'Radical Philosophy' movement. He embarked on postgraduate work under the guidance of Jonathan Rée, but life got in the way. For over thirty years philosophy has been a persistent background noise to his engagement with the world and his encounters with PhilSoc have provided a welcome opportunity (for him, at least) to re-engage with the conversation.

11.00 Beverages in the Common Room

11.30 Group Discussion

12.30 Bar, then Lunch

2.00 Course disperses