Themes from James Woodward Workshop – June 20 2022

The FraMEPhys project hosted a workshop on Themes from James Woodward on Monday 20 June 2022, at the University of Birmingham’s Edgbaston campus. If you have any queries about this event, please email


Nicholas Emmerson (University of Birmingham)

Noelia Iranzo Ribera (University of Birmingham)

Michael Townsen Hicks (University of Birmingham)

Alastair Wilson (University of Birmingham)

James Woodward (University of Pittsburgh)


Alan Walters Building, room 111 (campus map)
University of Birmingham
Pritchatt’s Road
Birmingham B15 2TT


Monday 20 June

10.00-10.50: Noelia Iranzo Ribera

11.00-11.50: Michael Townsen Hicks

13.30-14.20: Nicholas Emmerson

14.30-15.20: Alastair Wilson

15.45-17.00: James Woodward


Nicholas Emmerson (University of Birmingham).
“It ain’t that deep: Metaphysics and the Problem of Progress”
In this talk I defend a novel, unifying account of progress across science and metaphysics. In doing so, I utilize a methodology recently developed by Finnur Dellsén, Insa Lawler & James Norton (2021), who argue that we ought to use science as a “testing ground” for a general account of progress, before then applying the resultant notion to philosophy. My approach combines this “testing ground” methodology with an understanding-based conception of scientific progress and a unifying interventionist analysis of scientific and metaphysical explanation. On the resulting thesis, progress is made when both scientists and metaphysicians grasp deepening explanations of a target phenomenon.

Noelia Iranzo Ribera (University of Birmingham)
“Do Idealising Counterfactuals Explain? An Interventionist Approach”

Scientific reasoning and explanation is undeniably model-based. It is thus no surprise that counterfactuals in science appeal to scientific models, and that since modelling usually requires idealising phenomena for the sake of tractability or explanatory relevance many counterfactuals in science are counternomics or countermetaphysicals. I this talk, I explore whether these ‘idealising counterfactuals’ can be explanatory by the interventionist’s lights. In order to do so, I examine these through the lens of the ‘same-object counterfactuals’ vs. ‘other-object counterfactuals’ distinction (Woodward 2003, Woodward & Hitchcock 2003a). It is counterfactuals that describe a system’s causal dependencies, captured by interventions, that feature in interventionist explanations. These contrast with those that support nomothetic explanations, which describe how objects would behave were it to be different objects. While idealising counterfactuals don’t fit neatly in either category, I introduce a deflationary interventionist strategy that underpins their explanatory character and bypasses metaphysical controversies regarding their semantics.

Michael Townsen Hicks (University of Birmingham)
“Invariance: Actual or Counterfactual?”
Which generalizations are explanatory? According to Woodward (2000, 2003, 2018, 2020) explanatory generalizations are counterfactually invariant. Rather than focusing on exceptionless laws, Woodward argues, we should instead look for principles which are invariant under a broad range of counterfactual interventions. In this presentation, I discuss a Humean view which takes on Woodward’s suggestion that explanatory generalizations need not be exceptionless, merely invariant under a number of interventions. I argue that Humeans should develop this view with a focus on invariance under a variety of actual rather than counterfactual interventions, and hold (in typical Humean fashion) that counterfactual invariance is grounded in actual invariance. I then argue that this view can reap many of the benefits of Woodward’s account in focusing on invariance rather than exceptionlessness, without being tied to unreduced counterfacts.

Alastair Wilson (University of Birmingham)
“Metaphysical Interventions”
Interventionists about grounding have sought to bring the apparatus of interventionism about causation to bear on metaphysical forms of dependence. This application requires some very peculiar interventions – metaphysical interventions – which amount to the value of some variable being differently grounded from the way it is actually grounded. I canvass and respond to some challenges to the coherence of metaphysical interventions, and draw some lessons for how interventions should be delimited in the causal case.

James Woodward (University of Pittsburgh)
“The Worldly Infrastructure of Causation
” (with Naftali Weinberger and Porter Williams)
This talk argues that the successful application of causal reasoning to a system requires that the system exhibit certain generic features– these are what I call the “worldly infrastructure of causation”. These features include (i) the presence of some variables that are statistically independent of others, (ii) the possibility of interventions in the sense of unconfounded manipulations and more generally, the presence of exogenous sources of variation, (iii) the existence of a distinction or “cut” between generalizations characterizing the behavior of a system and the initial conditions characterizing the system, so that these components are suitably independent of each other, (iv) in the case of macroscopic systems some degree of “realization independence” in the sense that the macroscopic, coarse grained behavior of the system is largely independent of variations in its microscopic realizing details. It is a contingent matter whether these features are present in any particular case — they may fail to be present for some actual systems and it seems imaginable that there might exist systems or “worlds” in which the features systematically fail to obtain. Such systems will be “unfriendly” to causal analysis. I will suggest that it is not fruitful to think of these features as built into the “concept” of causation. Instead it is more appropriate to think of them as something more like presuppositions for the successful deployment of causal analysis.