Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh (2014)

Karen R. Zwier
Iowa State University
The current consensus view of causation in physics, as commonly held by scientists and philosophers, has several serious problems. It fails to provide an epistemology for the causal knowledge that it claims physics to possess; it is inapplicable in a prominent area of physics (classical thermodynamics); and it is difficult to reconcile with our everyday use of causal concepts and claims. In this dissertation, I use historical examples and philosophical arguments to show that the interventionist account of causation constitutes a promising alternative for a “physically respectable” account of causation. The interventionist account explicates important parts of the experimental practice of physics and important aspects of the ways in which physical theory is used and applied. Moreover, the interventionist account succeeds where the consensus view of causation in physics fails. I argue that the interventionist account provides an epistemology of causal knowledge in physics that is rooted in experiment. On the interventionist view, there is a close link between experiment and the testing of causal claims. I give several examples of experiments from the early history of thermodynamics that scientists used in interventionist-type arguments. I also argue that interventionist claims made in the context of a physical theory can be epistemically justified by reference to the experimental interventions and observations that serve as evidence for the theory. I then show that the interventionist account of causation is well-suited to the patterns of reasoning that are intrinsic to thermodynamic theory. I argue that interventionist reasoning constitutes the structural foundation of thermodynamic theory, and that thermodynamic theory can provide clear answers to meaningful questions about whether or not a certain variable is a cause of another in a given context. Finally, I argue that the interventionist account offers the prospect of a unification of “physically respectable” causation and our everyday notion of causation. I conclude the dissertation by sketching an anti-foundationalist unification of causation, according to which causal reasoning occurs in the same manner in physics as it does in other branches of life and scientific research.
Keywords Causation  Physical science  Thermodynamics  Intervention  Experiment
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References found in this work BETA

How the Laws of Physics Lie.Nancy Cartwright - 1983 - Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Causality: Models, Reasoning and Inference.Judea Pearl - 2000 - Cambridge University Press.

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