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Experiment as a Source and Test of Causal Content in Science

October 7, 2011

Karen Zwier

This presentation explores the history of the idea of experiment as a privileged method for gaining knowledge of causes.  Part of my aim is to argue against any temptation one might have to view manipulationist accounts of causation (a la Woodward) just as a current philosophical fad, as marginalizable, as just one out of several equally valid candidates for fleshing out the meaning of causal claims.  I will show that manipulationist accounts are part of a long tradition of thinking about causation as empirically testable and intimately tied to experiment.  I will also show that the tradition itself—i.e., that of thinking about causation as tied to experiment—was by no means a sideline in history; it is wrapped up in the fundamental ideas of the scientific revolution—the great reconceptualization of human inquiry into nature that resulted in what we call the “New Science”.

I begin by examining the thought of two of the main advocates for experiment during the early stages of the scientific revolution: Galileo and Bacon.  I explore their explicit statements about the connection between experiment and knowledge of causes, and I also examine examples of experiments that they carried out and discussed in their writings. My examination will show that the turn toward experiment during the scientific revolution was marked by a sharp change in what was validly considered to be a cause. The early thinkers of the scientific revolution worked on eliminating or removing emphasis on certain senses of causation prevalent in the academic Aristotelian philosophy of nature, while elevating different sense of cause that was directly linked with the very experimental methodology that they were advocating.

I jump forward in history to show that the narrowed experimental sense of cause that the early modern thinkers sought to characterize is strongly present in the work of John Stuart Mill two centuries later.  Finally, I touch on a few of the main points of the manipulationist account of causation advanced by several philosophers in recent decades, including its understanding of causal claims as referring to the results of actual or hypothetical experiments.

Ultimately, my examination of this historical thread of thought will reveal a great deal of constancy over the past four centuries, in addition to a great deal of progress and increasing sophistication of experimental methods to test causal relationships.

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