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The Origins and Functions of Causal Thinking II—Causation, Agency and Intervention

California Institute of Technology, Pasadena :: 11-13 November 2005

Overview : Tentative schedule : Titles and abstracts : Accommodation and travel : Attendance and enquiries

Overview

This is the second workshop in the series The Origins and Functions of Causal Thinking, and will focus on the topic 'Causation, Agency, and Intervention'. Issues to be discussed include the following:

• The notion of intervention. Many researchers in philosophy, psychology, and artificial intelligence have taken the notion of intervention to be central to our understanding of causation. But what is an intervention? Is it possible to characterize an intervention in purely objective terms?

• Interventions in scientific domains. Is the same notion of intervention appropriate across scientific domains, such as physics, psychology, and the social sciences?

• Causation and agency. What is the relationship between our understanding of ourseleves as agents in the world, and our understanding of causation more generally?

• Interventions and causal learning. How do our interventions in the world help us to gain an understanding of causal relationships?

• Developmental perspectives. How do infants and children come to understand themselves as beings capable of intervening in the world? How does this interact with other aspects of their causal learning?

• Comparative perspectives. Are humans in some sense unique in their understanding of themselves as agents? Do, e.g., differences in tool use between humans and other animals point to differences in our understanding of causation and agency?

• Simulation. Do what extent is it possible to reproduce causal judgments using expert systems? What heuristics facilitate the functioning of such systems? What can this teach us about our own causal reasoning?

The speakers will include:

Dare Baldwin (Psychology, Oregon)
John Campbell (Philosophy, Berkeley)
Adam Elga (Philosophy, Princeton)
Joe Halpern (Computer Science, Cornell)
Richard Holton (Philosophy, MIT)
Jennan Ismael (Philosophy, Arizona/Centre for Time, Sydney)
David Lagnado (Psychology, U. C. London)
Daniel Povinelli (Psychology, Louisiana)
Huw Price (Centre for Time, Sydney)
Laura Schulz (Psychology, MIT)


The conference will last two and a half days, with twelve 90-minute sessions. Most sessions will comprise a presentation (c. 45 minutes) followed by plenty of time for discussion. The talks should be informal in tone, suitable for an interdisciplinary audience, and should serve as foci for productive discussion. There will also be round table discussion sessions.

The conference is being organised by Chris Hitchcock (cricky@caltech.edu) and Jim Woodward (jfw@hss.caltech.edu) of the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences at Caltech. It is co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation (grant # SES-0522637), the McDonnell Foundation, and the Centre for Time, as well as the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences.

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Tentative Schedule

[Click on a speaker's name to go to titles and abstracts]

Thursday, November 10

6:00 – 7:00: Informal reception, Treasure Room, Dabney Hall of the Humanities

Friday, November 11

8:30 – 9:00
Continental Breakfast

9:00 – 9:15
Welcome and Introduction
James Woodward

9:15 – 10:45
Speaker: John Campbell
Chair: Christopher Hitchcock

10:45 – 11:00
Break

11:00 – 12:30
Speaker: Huw Price
Chair: Adam Elga

12:30 – 2:00
Lunch
Dabney Garden

2:00 – 3:30
Speaker: Adam Elga
Chair: Peter Menzies

3:30 – 3:45
Break

3:45 – 5:15
Speaker: Joseph Halpern
Chair: Ned Hall

5:15 – 5:30
Break

5:30 – 6:30
Octavian Forum Discussion
Introduction: Christopher Hitchcock
Beginning discussants: Christopher Hitchcock, Peter Menzies, John Campbell, Huw Price, Joseph Halpern

Saturday, November 12

8:30 – 9:15
Continental Breakfast





9:15 – 10:45
Speaker: Richard Holton
Chair: Maria Carla Galavotti

10:45 – 11:00
Break

11:00 – 12:30
Speaker: Jenann Ismael
Chair: Mathias Frisch

12:30 – 2:00
Lunch
Dabney Garden

2:00 – 3:30
Speaker: Daniel Povinelli
Chair: James Woodward

3:30 – 3:45
Break

3:45 – 5:15
Speaker: David Lagnado
Chair: Alison Gopnik

5:15 – 5:30
Break

5:30 – 6:30
Octavian Forum Discussion
Introduction: James Woodward
Beginning discussants: James Woodward, Alison Gopnik, Richard Holton, Jenann Ismael, Daniel Povinelli, David Lagnado




Evening: Banquet


Sunday, November 13

8:30 – 9:15
Continental Breakfast





9:15 – 10:45
Speaker: Dare Baldwin
Chair: Arif Ahmed

10:45 – 11:00
Break

11:00 – 12:30
Speaker: Laura Schulz
Chair: Noah Goodman

 

All talks will take place in Room 25, in the basement of Baxter Hall. Breakfast and coffee will be served outside this room.

Baxter Hall is building #77 near the middle of the campus map. Dabney Hall is building #70 nearby.



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Titles and Abstracts


What's the Role of Action in an Understanding of Causation?
John Campbell (Berkeley)

In this talk I will be drawing heavily on the the interventionist approach to causation developed by Woodward 2003, Woodward and Hitchcock 2003, and the causal Bayes net tradition within which they are working.

You might read the interventionist analysis as characterizing the kinds of modal facts that a subject exploits in manipulation - facts about what would happen under various interventions. On this approach, a grasp of causal facts has implications for what the upshot will be of the subject's own actions. Similarly, there are implications for what the upshot will be of various 'natural experiments' that might happen, such as the collision of two inanimate objects. But, on this approach, you could in principle grasp what causation is, understood as the interventionist suggests, without having ever noticed that the causal facts have implications for your own actions.

Doesn't agency have a more immediate place in an understanding of causation? Can we really make anything of the idea of a subject who knows what causation is but to whom it has never occurred that causal facts might have implications for his own actions? If the interventionist analysis were a reductive definition, we could say that someone without the notion of cause comes to grasp the idea of cause by grasping the definition. But the interventionist analysis makes heavy use of the notion of cause. So we have to explain in what sense, if any, someone who grasps the notion of cause can be said to grasp the interventionist analysis. I will argue that what happens here is that the subject is provided with an implicit understanding of the notion of an intervention, by tacitly taking it that his own actions are interventions.

This raises the question whether the interventionist framework, when glossed in this way, leaves open the possibility of an understanding of one's own actions as causal. Isn't the fact of one's own action being taken as a primitive, presupposed by one's understanding of causation, and incapable itself of being understood in causal terms? I will argue that this is a mistake, that emphasizing the importance of the fact of one's own agency in understanding causation is consistent with giving an analysis of agency in causal terms. And I will sketch out an account of the kind of causal structure for agency that matters here.

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Growing and pruning causal arrows using boundary conditions
Adam Elga (Princeton)

Systems of fundamental laws sometimes impose constraints on boundary conditions. For example, laws might rule out certain initial or final states of the world, or might impose a probability distribution over such states. Constraints on boundary conditions help to determine which causal graphs correctly describe a given world. Sometimes, imposing additional constraints can add causal arrows--as is illustrated most dramatically in certain supertask pathologies, and in cases that involve wormholes. Other times, imposing additional constraints can remove arrows--as when probability distributions over initial conditions make it appropriate to treat a sensitive system as if it were isolated. Constraints on boundary conditions therefore are an important part of the explanation of how simple macroscopic causal structure arises from intricate microscopic fundamental dynamics.

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Causality, Responsibility, and Blame: A Structural-Model Approach
Joseph Halpern (Cornell)

I first review the basic definition of causality introduced by Halpern and Pearl. This definition (like most in the literature) treats causality as an all-or-nothing concept; either A is a cause of B or it is not. We show how it can be extended to take into account the degree of responsibility of A for B. For example, if someone wins an election 11–0, then each person who votes for him is less responsible for the victory than if he had won 6–5. I then define a notion of degree of blame, which takes into account an agent's epistemic state. Roughly speaking, the degree of blame of A for B is the expected degree of responsibility of A for B, taken over the epistemic state of an agent. I also briefly discuss the extent to which definitions reflect how people use notions like cause, blame, and
responsibility in practice.

The first part of the talk represents joint work with Judea Pearl; the latter half represents joint work with Hana Chockler.

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Agency and Choice
Richard Holton (MIT)

The person who suffers from anarchic hand syndrome loses agency in one hand, but typically keeps it in the other. So how do the two hands differ? Not, I suggest, because the agent chooses what to do with one and not with the other. Typically the well-behaved hand works without need of choice. I use the case as a springboard for an account of choice, and of why it might be important for cognitively limited creatures like ourselves, and then return to ask what choice has to do with agency. Perhaps the anarchic hand is experienced as anarchic not because it acts in the absence of choice, but because the kinds of things it does are the kinds of things that would normally not be done without choice. It thus presents a experience of the loss of choice's efficacy. And that prompts some speculations about the role of choice in the experience of causation. Could it be that the most fundamental manipulation we experience is that of manipulating our actions by our choices?

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A Noncausal Account of the Phenomenology of Agency
Jenann Ismael (University of Arizona/University of Sydney)

"The problem of action is to explicate the contrast between what an agent does and what merely happens to him, or between the bodily movements that he makes and those that occur without his making them." (Frankfurt, 'The Problem of Action'‚ in The Importance of What We Care About, p. 69.)

The most obvious and popular ways of 'solving' the problem of action (i.e., explicating the subjective difference -- the difference from the agent's perspective -- between what an agent does and what merely happens to him) look to causal differences. Frankfurt, for example, writes:

according to causal theories of the nature of action, which currently represent the most widely followed approach of [the] contrast, the essential difference is to be found in their prior causal histories - different versions of the causal approach may provide differing accounts of the sorts of events or states which must figure causally in the production of actions.

Anyone who wants to reduce the asymmetry of causation to our experience of ourselves as agents in the world has to solve the problem in a way that doesn't use the notion of causation. I'm going to take a crack at doing that by taking a clue from Anscombe that nobody agrees with and then adapting it in a way that would have appalled her.

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Beyond Covariation: Cues for Learning Causal Structure
David Lagnado (University College, London)

How do people learn causal structure? Previous psychological models have focused on covariation-based learning, but this fails to capture the range of cues used to infer structure. In a series of experiments we investigated the interplay between temporal order, intervention and covariation. The main findings were that (1) participants allowed temporal order to override covariation information, leading to spurious causal inferences when temporal cues were misleading; (2) intervention and temporal order combined additively to yield accurate causal inference, well beyond that achievable through covariational data alone; (3) participants were able to use double interventions to disambiguate complex causal models. Together these studies show that people use both intervention and temporal order cues to infer causal structure, and that these cues dominate the available covariational information. We endorse a hypothesis-driven account of learning, whereby people use cues such as temporal order to generate initial models, and then test these models against the incoming covariational data.

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Causal Reasoning in Chimpanzees: Lessons from Their Conception of Weight
Daniel Povinelli (Lousiana)

In a series on two dozen experiments, we assessed whether adult chimpanzees possess a folk notion of weight that is abstract in the sense that it is an object-based property, independent of their immediate sensory experiences. The results of experiments which required the apes to (a) sort objects based on a dichotomous heavy/light distinction, (b) infer the kind of effort it would take to displace objects of radically different weights, (c) understand the differential effects that heavy and light objects have in simple collision events, revealed a virtual absence of weight as a fully independent object property. In contrast, the apes excelled at problems involving objects stability and support when an explicit contrast of heavy and light was not required. I suggest that these results are consistent with the broader hypothesis that reasoning about genuinely unobservable entities and processes (in both the domains of physical objects and social behavior) is a human specialization. This hypothesis argues that whereas both chimpanzees and human excel at extracting statistical regularities from directly perceivable events and objects, only humans seek to explain those regularities on the basis of causes.

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What Would God Know About Causation?
Huw Price (University of Sydney)

Remember the shock (or thrill) of realising for the first time that some people see you as a foreigner? Unless you thought that they were just wrong, what you discovered at that moment was that the local/foreigner distinction is 'perspectival'. How it is applied depends on where one stands; two different speakers may draw it differently, without either being mistaken; and there's no right way to apply it, from a perspective-free or 'god's-eye' point of view.

We humans have made many such discoveries, individually and collectively. Some of them were major intellectual achievements. Some of the lessons are still sinking in. Others, perhaps, have yet to come over the horizon. And we always learn something important, both about the world and about ourselves, when we uncover a new case.

I'm interested in the possibility that causation is perspectival in this way, and that the centrality of the notion of intervention is a key reason for thinking that it must be perspectival. In this talk I'll try to do three things: (i) clarify the general notion of what it is to be perspectival, in the relevant sense; (ii) sketch some arguments for thinking that causation is perspectival; (iii) discuss the kinds of things we learn about ourselves and about the world, in this case, if we accept that causation is perspectival.

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Constructivism Revisited: From Action to Inference and Back Again
Laura Schulz (MIT)

The idea that children actively "construct" knowledge by experimenting in the world and revising their theories with evidence has had a profound influence on the field of cognitive development since Piaget. However, although researchers have suggested that children are "little scientists", children are poor at designing controlled experiments and little is known about how children's spontaneous behavior might generate evidence to support causal learning. In this talk I will suggest ways in which prior knowledge, patterns of evidence, and assumptions about intervention might affect both children's causal inferences and their spontaneous actions in the world. First, I will briefly discuss some preliminary data suggesting that even 12-month-old infants may treat human actions as "interventions" on a causal system. Second, I will suggest that children's spontaneous actions are affected by the quality of the evidence they observe. When children observe stochastic or ambiguous evidence, they spontaneously generate more variation and exploration in their actions than when they observe deterministic and unambiguous evidence. Finally, I will suggest that both the number of different actions children generate and the number of times any given action is repeated, decline with age. Thus younger children may generate more evidence about novel causal relations than older children and adults.

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Accommodation and travel

Please click here or see this PDF file for further information.

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Attendance and enquiries

This is an invitation-only workshop. However, a very limited number of additional participants may be accepted, at the discretion of the organisers. If you would like to be considered, please contact Chris Hitchcock (cricky@caltech.edu) or Jim Woodward (jfw@hss.caltech.edu) before October 20, 2005.

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Last updated: 1 November 2005