Chapter 8: Applying the Definitions
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Chapter 8 Applying the Definitions Throughout history, people have studied pure science from a desire to understand the universe rather than practical applications for commercial gain. But their discoveries later turned out to have great practical benefits. Stephen Hawking In Chapter 1, I said that my goal was to get definitions of notions like causality, responsibility, and blame that matched our natural language usage of these words and were also useful. Now that we are rapidly approaching the end of the book, it seems reasonable to ask where we stand in this project. First some good news: I hope that I have convinced most of you that the basic approach of using structural equations and defining causality in terms of counterfactuals can deal with many examples, especially once we bring normality into the picture. Moreover, the framework also allows us to define natural notions of responsibility, blame, and explanation. These notions do seem to capture many of the intuitions that people have in a natural way. Next, some not-so-good news: One thing that has become clear to me in the course of writing this book is that things haven’t stabilized as much as I had hoped they would. Just in the process of writing the book, I developed a new definition of causality (the modified HP definition) and a new approach to dealing with normality (discussed in Section 3.5), and modified the definitions of responsibility, blame, and explanation (see the notes at the end of Chapters 6 and 7). Although I think that the latest definitions hold up quite well, particularly the modified HP definition combined with the alternative notion of normality, given that the modified HP definition is my third attempt at defining causality, and that other researchers continue to introduce new definitions, I certainly cannot be too confident that this is really the last word. Indeed, as I have indicated at various points in the book, there are some subtleties that the current definition does not seem to be capturing quite so well. To my mind, what is most needed is a good definition of agent-relative normality, which takes into account the issues discussed in Example 6.3.4 (where A and B can flip switches to determine whether C is shocked) and meshes well with the definition of causality, but doubtless others will have different concerns. 203 204 Chapter 8. Applying the Definitions Moreover, when we try to verify experimentally the extent to which the definitions that we give actually measure how people ascribe causality and responsibility, the data become messy. Although the considerations discussed in Chapter 6 (pivotality, normality, and blame assignments ) seem to do quite a good job of predicting how people will ascribe causal responsibility at a qualitative level, because all these factors (and perhaps others) affect people’s causality and responsibility judgments, it seems that it will be hard to design a clean theory that completely characterizes exactly how people acribe causality, responsibility, and blame at a more quantitative level. So where does this leave us? I do not believe that there is one “true” definition of causality. We use the word in many different, but related, ways. It is unreasonable to expect one definition to capture them all. Moreover, there are a number of closely related notions—causality, blame, responsibility, intention—that clearly are often confounded. Although we can try to disentangle them at a theoretical level, people clearly do not always do so. That said, I believe that it is important and useful to have precise formal definitions. To take an obvious example, legal judgments depend on causal judgments. A jury will award a large settlement to a patient if it believes that the patient’s doctor was responsible for an inappropriate outcome. Although we might disagree on whether and the extent to which the doctor was responsible, the disagreement should be due to the relevant facts in the case, not a disagreement about what causality and responsibility mean. Even if people confound notions like causality and responsibility, it is useful to get definitions that distinguish them (and perhaps other notions as well), so we can be clear about what we are discussing. Although the definition(s) may not be able to handle all the subtleties, that is not necessary for them to be useful. I have discussed...


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