Manipulationism, Ceteris Paribus Laws, and the Bugbear of Background Knowledge

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According to manipulationist accounts of causal explanation, to explain an event is to show how it could be changed by intervening on its cause. The relevant change must be a ‘serious possibility’ claims Woodward 2003, distinct from mere logical or physical possibility—approximating something I call ‘scientific possibility’. This idea creates significant difficulties: background knowledge is necessary for judgments of possibili-ty. Yet the primary vehicles of explanation in manipulationism are ‘invariant’ generali-sations, and these are not well adapted to encoding such knowledge, especially in the social sciences, as some of it is non-causal. Ceteris paribus (CP) laws or generalisa-tions labour under no such difficulty. A survey of research methods such as case and comparative studies, randomised control trials, ethnography, and structural equation modeling, suggests that it would be more difficult and in some instances impossible to try to represent the output of each method in invariant generalisations; and that this is because in each method causal and non-causal background knowledge mesh in a way that cannot easily be accounted for in manipulationist terms. Ceteris paribus-generalisations being superior in this regard, a theory of explanation based on the latter is a better fit for social science.
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