Bilking the bilking argument

Analysis 69 (4):605-611 (2009)
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Is it conceptually possible for an event, L, to be the cause of an earlier event, E? Some writers have employed the so-called bilking argument to attempt to show that the idea of such backwards causation is incoherent . According to this argument, if we are presented with what someone claims to be a case of backwards causation, it would be possible in principle to wait for E to occur, and then intervene to prevent the occurrence of L, thus demonstrating that E could not have been caused by L after all. Moreover, if our attempts to bilk L-type events having observed E-type events always fail, we have grounds to argue that any causal relationship between the two is not one of backwards causation, but of ordinary, forwards, earlier-to-later causation.Does the bilking argument succeed in showing backwards causation to be incoherent? Before answering this question, let us deal with a far simpler reason for deeming backwards causation incoherent, whose elucidation now will be useful later. To those attracted to the view that temporal order is determined by causal order, 1 backwards causation may seem incoherent because on this view a cause is by definition earlier than its effect. I do not take issue with this view, and wish my conception of backwards causation to be compatible with it. 2 By ‘backwards causation’, I mean causation that runs in the opposite direction to some other causal processes, such that the temporal order entailed by such backwards causation is the reverse of that entailed by those other causal processes. In most philosophical discussions of backwards causation, we are at least implicitly given reasons to believe that these other causal processes dictate the …

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Rebecca Roache
Royal Holloway University of London


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