Cause and burn

Cognition 207 (104517):104517 (2021)
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Many philosophers maintain that causation is to be explicated in terms of a kind of dependence between cause and effect. These “dependence” theories are opposed by “production” accounts which hold that there is some more fundamental causal “oomph”. A wide range of experimental research on everyday causal judgments seems to indicate that ordinary people operate primarily with a dependence-based notion of causation. For example, people tend to say that absences and double preventers are causes. We argue that the impression that commonsense causal discourse is largely dependence-based is the result of focusing on a very narrow class of causal verbs. Almost all of the vignette-based experimental work on causal judgment has been prosecuted using the word “cause”. But much ordinary causal discourse involves special causal verbs, such as “burn” and “crack”. We find that these verbs display a quite different pattern from the verb “cause”. For instance, for absences and double preventers (Studies 1-3), we find that while people are inclined to say that X caused Y to burn, turn, crack or start, they are less inclined to think that X burned, turned, cracked or started Y. In Study 4, we find that for chains involving a distal and proximal event, people are inclined to say that the distal event is not a special cause of the outcome, though it is a “cause” of the outcome. Together, we find a surprising double dissociation between “cause” and a stock of special causal verbs. We conclude by suggesting that much commonsense causal judgment, which heavily trades in special causal verbs, might be better captured by production-based accounts of causation.

Author Profiles

David Rose
Stanford University
Eric Sievers
Florida State University
Shaun Nichols
Cornell University


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