Causal Perspectivalism Conference – June 13-14 2022

The FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham is hosting a conference on Causal Perspectivalism in Birmingham on 13 and 14 June 2022. Registration for the conference will open shortly. If you have any queries about this event, please email f.longworth@bham.ac.uk .

SPEAKERS

Alison Fernandes (Trinity College Dublin)
“How Agency Features in Explaining the Direction of Causation”

Mathias Frisch (Leibniz University Hannover)
“The Asymmetry of Records and the initial randomness assumption”

Joaquim Giannotti (University of Birmingham)
“Grounding Perspectivalism: Metaphysical Explanation in the Eye of the Beholder”

Michael Townsen Hicks (University of Birmingham)
“Are Symmetry Explanations Grounding Explanations?”

Jenann Ismael (Columbia University)
“It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see”

Lina Jansson (University of Nottingham)
“Symmetries and conservation laws”

Peter Evans (University of Queensland) (Joint work with Gerard J. Milburn and Sally Shrapnel)
“Causal asymmetry from the perspective of a causal agent”

James Woodward (University of Pittsburgh)
“Flagpoles Anyone? Causal and Explanatory Asymmetries”

COMMENTATORS

Helen Beebee (University of Leeds)

Markel Kortabarria (University of Barcelona)

Noelia Iranzo Ribera (University of Birmingham)

LOCATION

The Birmingham and Midland Institute
9 Margaret St, Birmingham B3 3BS

The venue is a short walk from Birmingham New Street Station.

Talks will be held in in the John Peek Room.

SCHEDULE (PROVISIONAL)

Monday 13 June

9.30-10.50: Jenann Ismael

11.10-12.30: Peter Evans

14.00-15.20: Alison Fernandes (Comments: Helen Beebee)

15.40-17.00: Mathias Frisch

Tuesday 14 June

9.00-10.20: Joaquim Giannotti (Comments: Markel Kortabarria)

10.40-12.00: Michael Townsen Hicks

13.30-14.50: Lina Jansson

15.10-16.30: James Woodward


ABSTRACTS

Peter Evans (University of Queensland). (Joint work with Gerard J. Milburn and Sally Shrapnel)
“Causal asymmetry from the perspective of a causal agent”
Agency accounts of causation are often criticised as being unacceptably subjective or anthropocentric. According to such criticisms, if there were no human agents then there would be no causal relations, or, at the very least, if human agents had been different then so too would causal relations. Here we describe a model of a causal agent that is not human with a view to exploring this latter claim. This model obeys the known laws of physics, and we claim that it endows the causal agent with a “causal viewpoint: a distinctive mix of knowledge, ignorance and practical ability that a creature must apparently exemplify, if it is to be capable of employing causal concepts” (Price, 2007, p.255). We argue that this model of a causal agent provides a clear illustration of the epistemic constraints that define such a ‘causal perspective’, and thus shows a plausible way for agency accounts to be perfectly capable of characterising causation in the absence of human agents.

Alison Fernandes (Trinity College, Dublin)
“How Agency Should Feature in Explaining the Direction of Causation”

Agency accounts make sense of causal relations by relating them to effective strategies— causal relations must be useful for agents in deciding what to do. Agency accounts also use features of agents to explain why causes come prior in time to their effects—and claim this result as a major advantage to their approach. Huw Price, for example, argues that deliberation ‘undermines’ correlations between an agent’s actions now and past events, implying there will be no backwards causation in real-world cases. But Price’s explanation relies on causal features of deliberation—making his attempt to explain the direction of causation viciously circular. A consequence of this circularity is that, despite Price’s claims to trace the temporal asymmetry of causation back to the temporal orientation of deliberation, the temporal orientation of deliberation plays no role in Price’s explanation. Other agency accounts attempt non-causal explanations for why correlations to the past are undermined by deliberation. These have better prospects for explaining the temporal asymmetry of causation—but only by using features of worldly structure as well as agency in deriving causal direction.

Mathias Frisch (Leibniz University Hannover)
“The Asymmetry of Records and the initial randomness assumption”

Why do we know more about the past than the future? Why are there records of the past but not of the future? In this talk I will survey different accounts of the asymmetry of records, including David Albert’s influential account. I will then offer a derivation of the asymmetry from an assumption of initial randomness—an assumption that arguably is a causal assumption.  Thus, the asymmetry of knowledge and of records—an asymmetry that is intimately tied to the asymmetry of agency—arises from a more fundamental causal asymmetry, or so I will argue.

Joaquim Giannotti (University of Birmingham)
“Grounding Perspectivalism: Metaphysical Explanation in the Eye of the Beholder”
Theorists of grounding believe that this notion has an intimate connection with metaphysical explanation. However, they struggle to harmonise the objective mind-independent features of grounding and the context-sensitive aspects of metaphysical explanation. As a reconciliatory approach, I offer a framework of metaphysical explanation that draws from perspectival realist views in the philosophy of science. According to the proposed view, our understanding of explanatory grounding claims is inescapably situated in agent-dependent perspectives that aim to aptly latch onto a grounding structure out there. To defend its merits, I discuss how this perspectival framework accommodates certain disputes concerning the priority and the asymmetry of what grounds what. Exploring some deeper implications of grounding perspectivalism for our metaphysical theorizing, I conclude by stirring controversy: contrary to a popular view, metaphysical explanation is not a guide to grounding.

Michael Townsen Hicks (University of Birmingham)
“Are Symmetry Explanations Grounding Explanations?”
I aim to show that there are two sorts of symmetry explanations that are plausibly regarded as grounding explanations. The first is the explanation of symmetry principles in terms of spacetime or property structure. I will argue that symmetry principles, which are constraints on the laws, are plausibly grounded in spacetime structure. The second is the explanation of conservation laws via symmetry principles.I will argue that symmetry principles ground conservation laws. I will first contrast grounding explanation and explanation by constraint and argue that these explanations are better characterized as grounding explanations than as explanations by constraint. I will then discuss the challenge, inspired by spacetime functionalism, that they are not explanations at all. I will argue that the proponent of grounding explanation can overcome this challenge.

Lina Jansson (University of Nottingham)
“Symmetries and conservation laws”

Spacetime symmetries are sometimes taken to explain conservation laws rather than vice versa.  However, in common with many seemingly non-causal explanations, it is not easy to see how to justify this direction of explanation. This prompts some, such as Brown (forthcoming) to provide a pragmatic debunking account of the seeming explanatory priority of symmetries over conservation laws.  Others, such as Saatsi and French (2018) make use of an account that appeals to our perspective as human agents to extend an interventionist counterfactual account to cover these cases. In this talk I will present a counterfactual account of explanation that does not appeal to perspectival notions in order to account for how symmetries could explain conservation laws (but not vice versa).  

Jenann Ismael (Columbia University)
“It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see”

Many writers have pointed out that the apparent direction of causation depends on a coarse-graining that carves phase space into macrostates in a radically uneven way. I will look at the complex set of ways in which agency depends on and exploits the thermodynamic gradient and assess what that means for the senses in which agency (and the causal ideas that agents deploy in navigating the world) are a matter of perspective.

James Woodward (University of Pittsburgh)
“Flagpoles Anyone? Causal and Explanatory Asymmetries

This paper discusses some procedures developed in recent work in machine learning for inferring causal direction from observational data. The role of independence and invariance assumptions is emphasized. Several familiar examples including Hempel’s flagpole problem are explored in the light of these ideas. The framework is then applied to problems having to do with explanatory direction in non-causal explanation.