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The Origins and Functions of Causal Thinking

Introduction :: Future Events :: Past Events


This project aims to improve our understanding of the structure, functions and possible origins of causal concepts in human thought, by thinking about questions such as these:

• What are the advantages to creatures like us in thinking in causal terms?

• In what ways do these advantages depend on (a) characteristics of us and (b) characteristics of the world we inhabit (bearing in mind that these two aspects are likely to be closely intertwined)?

• What can be said from this perspective about the relation between causal concepts and other 'modal' aspects of thought, such as counterfactual and probabilistic reasoning; and more generally, the relationship between these modal aspects of thought and the temporal aspects of thought, experience, knowledge and decision?

• How do these issues connect with significant temporal aspects of the world we inhabit, such as the thermodynamic time-asymmetry?

We want to address these issues in an interdisciplinary way, bringing together insights from philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science. One significant aspect of our approach is likely to involve formal modelling of idealised 'cognisers' in idealised environments, to address the issue of the role and relevance of causal notions for such 'creatures'.

The philosophical perspective is intended to be neutral, at least initially, on issues concerning the 'metaphysics' of causality -- e.g., on whether causal relations are 'discovered' or 'imposed' by human thought. (We anticipate that the project will throw some light on these issues.)

The project began with a initial workshop in Venice, 13--15 May 2004, which aimed to establish a core research group, to achieve a common core 'competence' by reading and discussing some key papers, and to clarify the issues to be addressed at later meetings.

The Venice Workshop

Left to right: Dave Lagnado, Arif Ahmed, Christoph Hoerl, Jim Woodward, Iain Martel, Brad Weslake, Alison Gopnik, Adam Elga, Matthias Frisch, Peter Menzies, David Danks, Maria Carla Galavotti, Chris Hitchcock, Paolo Garbolino, Huw Price.

Not present: Margherita Benzi, Stefania Caldi, Raffaella Campaner, John Campbell, Vittorio Girotto, Simone Gozzano, Claudio Pizzi, Luca Surian, Nikola Uzunovski.

Medium and large versions of the photo also available.


Tentative schedule of future events

Early 2005
Agency and Intervention
Organised by Jim and Chris

Late 2005/Early 2006
Causation, Time and Physics
Organised by Huw and Peter

Late 2006
Causation in the Special Sciences
Organised by Maria Carla and Paolo

Time to be confirmed
History of the concept of causation
Organised by Arif


Past events

Venice :: 13-14 May 2004

An interdisciplinary research workshop organised by the Centre for Time, University of Sydney, and the Faculty of Arts and Design [in English], IUAV University, in association with the Department of Philosophy, University of Bologna. The schedule was as follows.

Causation and intervention
Introduced and chaired by Jim Woodward, Caltech.

Is causation found or made? Perspectivalism and the problem of time-asymmetry.
Introduced and chaired by Huw Price, University of Sydney.

Causal taxonomy.
Introduced and chaired by Christopher Hitchcock, Caltech.

Causation in context.
Introduced and chaired by Peter Menzies, Macquarie University.

Causation, intervention, association and mechanism˜psychological approaches to causation. Introduced and chaired by Alison Gopnik, Berkeley.

Intervention, temporal order and causal learning.
Introduced and chaired by Dave Lagnado, UCL.

The usefulness of causal beliefs.
Introduced and chaired by David Danks, Carnegie-Mellon.

Round-table discussion.
Chaired by Maria Carla Galavotti, University of Bologna.



Updated 13 May, 2004.
Send corrections and additions to
Brad Weslake.
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