Home > Uncategorized > Is causality only in the mind?

Is causality only in the mind?

from Lars Syll

James HeckmanI make two main points that are firmly anchored in the econometric tradition. The first is that causality is a property of a model of hypotheticals. A fully articulated model of the phenomena being studied precisely defines hypothetical or counterfactual states. A definition of causality drops out of a fully articulated model as an automatic by-product. A model is a set of possible counterfactual worlds constructed under some rules. The rules may be the laws of physics, the consequences of utility maximization, or the rules governing social interactions, to take only three of many possible examples. A model is in the mind. As a consequence, causality is in the mind.

James Heckman

So, according to this ‘Nobel prize’ winning econometrician, “causality is in the mind.” But is that a tenable view? Yours truly thinks not. If one as an economist or social scientist would subscribe to that view there would be pretty little reason to be interested in questions of causality at all.  And it sure doesn’t suffice just to say that all science is predicated on assumptions. To most of us, models are seen as ‘vehicles’ or ‘instruments’ by which we represent causal processes and structures that exist and operate in the real world. As we all know, models often do not succeed in representing or explaining these processes and structures, but if we didn’t consider them as anything but figments of our minds, well then maybe we ought to reconsider why we should be in the science business at all …

The world as we know it has limited scope for certainty and perfect knowledge. Its intrinsic and almost unlimited complexity and the interrelatedness of its parts prevent the possibility of treating it as constituted by atoms with discretely distinct, separable and stable causal relations. Our knowledge accordingly has to be of a rather fallible kind. To search for deductive precision and rigour in such a world is self-defeating. The only way to defend such an endeavour is to restrict oneself to prove things in closed model-worlds. Why we should care about these and not ask questions of relevance is hard to see. As scientists we have to get our priorities right. Ontological under-labouring has to precede epistemology.

The value of getting at precise and rigorous conclusions about causality based on ‘tractability’ conditions that are seldom met in real life, is difficult to assess. Testing and constructing models is one thing, but we do also need guidelines for how to evaluate in which situations and contexts they are applicable. Formalism may help us a bit down the road, but we have to make sure it somehow also fits the world if it is going to be really helpful in navigating that world. In all of science, conclusions are never more certain than the assumptions on which they are founded. But most epistemically convenient methods and models that work in ‘well-behaved’ systems do not come with warrants that they will work in other (real-world) contexts.

  1. Ken Zimmerman
    June 2, 2021 at 11:36 am

    This is silly notion. For causality to be debated, or just discussed by economists, or any other group there must some general notion about a thing under debate. The specificity of the thing may vary but there must be something upon which to ‘hang one’s hat.’ Some shared and of course modifiable understanding of causality.

  2. John Jensen
    June 9, 2021 at 9:19 pm

    Why would causality not be part of the mind. It’s the way we operate – we get an idea about nature and then we try to figure out what “causes” our observations. Why do volcanoes erupt? Something must be causing it (now but not before or after) and it spikes our curiosity to find out. But, are we ever actually correct – perhaps what we “think” is a cause may actually be an intervening event caused by something else in a causal chain. But, since we have minds we have a need to find out. Do squirrels ever wonder “why” the nuts are there or do they just think about foraging and storing them? If they don’t care about causality perhaps it’s because they lack a mind. Conclusion: only having a mind can lead to the concept of causality.

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