Skow on Causation and Explanation

As part of FraMEPhys, the project team have been scouring the recent literature on causation and explanation. A new output of this literature review has just been published in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews: Alastair Wilson’s review of Bradford Skow’s new book Causation, Explanation and the Metaphysics of Aspect.

Executive summary for metaphysicians in a hurry: Skow constructs a coherent and systematic picture of causation which centres active entities, which makes the distinction between causes and background conditions a metaphysically substantive one, and which aligns the metaphysics of causation closely (perhaps too closely) with the grammatical form of causal-explanatory sentences in English.

25 June: Matt Farr, “Do we need to explain initial conditions?”

Our final visitor in the 2019 FraMEPhys Seminar series was Dr Matt Farr (Cambridge) on Tuesday 25 June 2019.

Matt’s title and abstract were as follows: 

Do we need to explain initial conditions?
It is common to think of the universe as a grand time-directed process that started out in some initial state — call this the ‘time-directed universe’ hypothesis (TDU). On TDU, the initial state is explanatorily unique — it is the only one that did not evolve from some prior set of conditions. Some have appealed to this explanatory uniqueness to suggest that it is misguided to seek an explanation as to why the early universe was extremely low-entropy, and so argue that TDU plays an important explanatory role in physics. But what if we reject TDU? This talk considers the options for those that assume a temporally adirectional metaphysics, which I call the ‘C theory’. Given the C theory holds there is no intrinsic difference between ‘initial’ and ‘final’ states of physical systems, it is unclear what we are to make of the explanatory demands of the low entropy early universe. I assess a series of options for the C theory, arguing that the rejection of TDU leaves us no worse off with regard to explaining the low entropy early universe.

Before the talk, there was a reading group with the speaker. The paper we discussed was “Measures, Explanations and the Past: Should ‘Special’ Initial Conditions be Explained?” by Craig Callender, available here: https://doi.org/10.1093/bjps/55.2.195

Katie Robertson in Groningen: “Stars and Steam Engines: To What Extent do Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics Apply to Self-Gravitating Systems?”

On Sunday 23 June, Katie Robertson gave a talk in Groningen at a workshop on Probabilities in Cosmology, as part of a stellar lineup of speakers including Sabine Hossenfelder and Robert Wald.

Katie’s title was “Stars and Steam Engines: To What Extent do Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics Apply to Self-Gravitating Systems?”. The conclusion was an irenic resolution to recent debates about the astrophysics of elliptical galaxies – statistical mechanics does apply to them, but thermodynamics doesn’t.

Katie Robertson at Sigma Club: “In Search of the Holy Grail: how to Reduce the Second Law”

On Monday 17 June, Katie Robertson spoke at the Sigma Club seminar at LSE, on the ‘holy grail’ of philosophy of thermal physics: how to reduce the second law of thermodynamics to statistical mechanics.

Katie’s conclusion is that once we get properly clear on the target of the reduction – on what grail it is we’re seeking! – then the Gibbs entropy of statistical mechanics can be shown to play the role of the thermodynamic entropy.

10 June: Dan Marshall on Facts and Grounding

A supplementary FraMEPhys Seminar was given by project visitor Dan Marshall (Lingnan University) on Monday 10th June 2019.

Dan’s title was “Facts and Grounding”.

Abstract: The most popular theories of the individuation conditions of facts are the coarse-grain theory, according to which facts are identical if and only if they are necessarily equivalent, and the structure theory, according to which facts are structured in the same kind of way sentences are structured. Despite their popularity, both these theories have serious problems. In this paper, I propose a new moderate-grain theory of facts that avoids these problems by individuating states of affairs more finely than the coarse-grain theory and more coarsely than the structure theory. I then defend the proposed theory from the objection that it is incompatible with widely accepted principles of grounding by arguing that these principles of grounding are false and should be replaced with alternative principles.