A Psychological Approach to Causal Understanding and the Temporal Asymmetry

Review of Philosophy and Psychology 11 (4):977-994 (2020)
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This article provides a conceptual account of causal understanding by connecting current psychological research on time and causality with philosophical debates on the causal asymmetry. I argue that causal relations are viewed as asymmetric because they are understood in temporal terms. I investigate evidence from causal learning and reasoning in both children and adults: causal perception, the temporal priority principle, and the use of temporal cues for causal inference. While this account does not suffice for correct inferences of causal structure, I show it to serve as a preliminary understanding of causal concepts as asymmetric, that later incorporates other types of evidence. This approach supplies causal models with an asymmetric concept of causation that underlies hypotheses about causal structure, as I will illustrate from the framework of the knowledge-based causal induction model. I further argue for an integrating perspective, showing how the understanding of causes as preceding their effects underlies both psychological models and philosophical debates over time and the causal asymmetry, particularly regarding problem cases such as simultaneous causation or backwards causation, and the conceptual connection between causation and action.

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Elena Popa
Jagiellonian University


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