The Epistemology of Causal Selection: Insights from Systems Biology

In C. Kenneth Waters (ed.), Causal Reasoning in Biology. University of Minnesota Press (forthcoming)
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Among the many causes of an event, how do we distinguish the important ones? Are there ways to distinguish among causes on principled grounds that integrate both practical aims and objective knowledge? Psychologist Tania Lombrozo has suggested that causal explanations “identify factors that are ‘exportable’ in the sense that they are likely to subserve future prediction and intervention” (Lombrozo 2010, 327). Hence portable causes are more important precisely because they provide objective information to prediction and intervention as practical aims. However, I argue that this is only part of the epistemology of causal selection. Recent work on portable causes has implicitly assumed them to be portable within the same causal system at a later time. As a result, it has appeared that the objective content of causal selection includes only facts about the causal structure of that single system. In contrast, I present a case study from systems biology in which scientists are searching for causal factors that are portable across rather than within causal systems. By paying careful attention to how these biologists find portable causes, I show that the objective content of causal selection can extend beyond the immediate systems of interest. In particular, knowledge of the evolutionary history of gene networks is necessary for correctly identifying causal patterns in these networks that explain cellular behavior in a portable way.

Author's Profile

Beckett Sterner
Arizona State University


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