CONCEPTS OF CAUSALITY

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The Overall Philosophical Consequences

We began with a cognitive semantic analysis of the concepts of events and causation. If one accepts that analysis, a great deal follows. Given that causation is a multivalent radial concept with inherently metaphorical senses, the theory of the one true causation becomes not merely false, but silly. Once we know that it is multivalent, not monolithic, and that it is largely metaphorical, it turns out not to be the kind of thing that could have a single logic or could be an objective feature of the world. Since the concept of causation has ineliminably metaphorical subcases, those forms of causation, as conceptualized metaphorically, cannot literally be objective features of the world. There can be no one true causation.

That does not mean that causation does not exist, that there are no determining factors in the world. If one gives up the correspondence theory of truth and adopts the experientialist account of truth as based on embodied understanding, then there is a perfectly sensible view of causation to be given. We do not claim to know whether the world, in itself, contains “determining factors.” But the world as we normally conceptualize it certainly does. Those determining factors consist in all the very different kinds of situations we call causal.

When we see or hypothesize a determining factor of some kind, we conceptualize it using one of our forms of causation, either literal or metaphorical. If metaphorical, we choose a metaphor with which to conceptualize the situation, preferably a metaphor whose logic is appropriate to the kind of determining factor noticed. Using that metaphor we can make claims about that determining factor. The claims can be “true” relative to our understanding, which itself may be literal or metaphorical.

This does not eliminate all problems of truth with respect to metaphor. It moves many of them to another place, but a more appropriate place. It leads us to ask, “When is a metaphorical conceptualization of a situation apt?” Is it an apt use of metaphor to apply the metaphor of Causal Paths to democracy in the arena of foreign policy? Only relative to a decision concerning the aptness of the metaphor can we draw conclusions on the basis of the Causal Paths metaphor.

The Experiential Stance and Embodied Standpoints

The study of human categorization has revealed that our conceptual system is organized around basic-level concepts, concepts that are defined relative to our ability to function optimally in our environment, given our bodies. Concepts of direct human agency – pushing, pulling, hitting, throwing, lifting, giving, taking, and so on – are among the basic-level anchors of our conceptual system in general and our system of causal concepts in particular.

We have no more fundamental way of comprehending the world than through our embodied, basic-level concepts and the basic-level experiences that they generalize over. Such basic concepts are fundamental not only to our literal conceptualization of the world but to our metaphorical conceptualization as well. Our basic-level understanding, which makes use of basic-level concepts, is required for any account of truth at all.

Suppose I lift a glass. My most fundamental understanding of such an action will involve a basic-level conceptualization in terms of the concept of lifting, which will in turn involve the general motor programs used in typical cases of lifting and a conceptualization of the spatial-relations concept ‘up’.

My lifting a glass can be understood from many perspectives. From the perspective of the subatomic level, there is no lifting and no glass. From the perspective of superstring theory, no ‘force’ entity exists, only curvatures in multidimensional space. But from the human, experiential stance, the optimal way for me to conceptualize the situation, given my normal purposes, is in terms of the basic-level concepts lift and glass. Lifting an object directly involves the direct application of “force.” From this perspective, given the understanding I naturally project onto such a situation, “force” exists. From the standpoint of the human conceptual system in the cognitive unconscious, there is a concept of causation with human agency as the central prototype. From the ordinary human standpoint, force exists and causation exists, and lifting a glass is an instance of both the exertion of force and of causation.

Our conceptual systems also contain metaphorical concepts, as we have seen. Philosophical and scientific theories often make use of those metaphorical concepts. Moreover, our fundamental metaphorical concepts are not arbitrary, subjective, or even for the most part culturally determined. They are largely embodied, having a basis in our embodied experience. Even the most abstruse scientific theories, like general relativity and superstring theory, make use of such fundamental embodied metaphors as the Time As Spatial Dimension metaphor and the Location Event-Structure metaphor.

One important thing that cognitive science has revealed clearly is that we have multiple conceptual means for understanding and thinking about situations. What we take as “true” depends on how we conceptualize the situation at hand. From the perspective of our ordinary visual experience, the sun does rise; it does move up from behind the horizon. From the perspective of our scientific knowledge, it does not.

Similarly, when we lift an object, we experience ourselves exerting a force to overcome a force pulling the object down. From the standpoint of our basic-level experience, the force of gravity does exist, no matter what the general theory of relativity says. But if we are physicists concerned with calculating how light will move in the presence of a large mass, then it is advantageous to take the perspective of general relativity, in which there is no gravitational force.

It is not that one is objectively true while the other is not. Both are human perspectives. One, the non-scientific one, is literal relative to human, body-based conceptual systems. The other, the scientific one, is metaphorical relative to human, body-based conceptual systems. From the metaphorical scientific perspective of general relativity and superstring theory, gravitational force does not exist as an entity – instead it is space-time curvature. From the literal, non-scientific perspective, forces exist.

Now, if we take one scientific theory or another as being literally true, and if we insist that there is only one truth and it is the best scientific truth we have, then force does not exist, and so neither does causation. If, however, we can allow scientific theories to be recognized for the metaphorical conceptual structures that they are for human beings, then we can allow multiple ways of conceptualizing the world, including both the scientific and non-scientific. Allowing for the multiple perspectives indicated by cognitive analyses allows us to maintain both scientific perspectives, in which causation doesn’t exist, and our everyday perspective, in which it does.

Causation and Realism: Does Causation Exist?

When someone asks, “Does causation exist?” that person usually wants to know whether there is a single unified phenomenon (which is called “causation”) objectively existing in the mind-independent world and operating according to a single logic. Furthermore, he or she assumes that there is a straightforward simple yes-or-no answer. As we have seen, the situation is more complex than that.

But the presuppositions lying behind this apparently simple question are massively false. First, causation is a word in a human language and it designates a human category, a radial category of extraordinary complexity. In that complex radial category, there is no set of necessary and sufficient conditions that covers all the cases of causation. Therefore, causation as we conceptualize it is not a unified phenomenon. It does not simply designate an objectively existing category of phenomena, defined by necessary and sufficient conditions and operating with a single logic in the mind-independent world. Because the presuppositions lying behind the question are so far off base, the question has no simple straightforward answer.

This eliminates a simpleminded realism that assumes that our language is simply a reflection of the mind-independent world, and hence that such questions are simple and straightforward. But eliminating simpleminded realism does not eliminate all forms of realism, and it does not require either idealism or total relativism.

What remains is an embodied realism that recognizes that human language and thought are structured by, and bound to, embodied experience. In the case of physics, there is certainly a mind-independent world. But in order to conceptualize and describe it, we must use embodied human concepts and human language. Certain of those embodied human concepts, the basic-level ones, accord very well with middle-level physical experience and therefore have an epistemic priority for us. It is here that we feel comfortable saying that causation exists for ordinary cases of the direct application of physical force in our everyday lives. The central prototypical case in our basic-level experience gives us no problem in answering the question. He punched me in the arm. He caused me pain. Yes, causation exists.

The question is, however, problematic just about everywhere else, because we are moving away from the central prototypical case of causation to other, very different senses with different logics and different criteria for determining what is true. The question is not so simple for causal paths, causal links, and so on. These cases require an embodied correspondence theory of truth, where embodied conceptualizations of the situation, metaphorical and non-metaphorical, are taken into account. In such cases, causation exists or doesn’t depending both on the world and on our conceptualization of it.

Beyond middle-level physical experience – in the micro-universe of elementary particles and the macro-universe of black holes – our basic-level concepts utterly fail us. To conceptualize such experience requires the magnificent tool of conceptual metaphor. But once we move to the domain of conceptual metaphor in theorizing about the micro and macro levels, any ordinary every day literal notion of causation fails us. When our theories are metaphorical and contain no concept of causation, we answer the question of whether causation exists depending on how literally we take our theories.

In short, the question “Does causation exist?” is not a simpleminded yes-or-no question. It drastically oversimplifies something that we have seen is massively complex.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.

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