Can we know a cause by seeing it – University of Copenhagen

Can we Know a Cause by Seeing it?

The project is an independent post.doc project carried out by Johan Gersel. The project is supported financially by the Danish Council for Independent Research and the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen.

In this project I will defend the view that perception can be the source of our knowledge about causal relations. Knowledge of causal relations is central to our understanding of reality. We understand events by finding out what their causes were; we plan our future by knowing how we can cause various things to happen; and we measure out blame and praise by looking at who caused a given happening. Some philosophers even claim that there could be no thought about the empirical world at all, unless we took empirical objects to stand in causal relations of dependence.

Yet, it has always been a serious philosophical challenge to account for how we possess knowledge of such causal relations. It seems that knowledge of causal relations is a prime example of empirical knowledge; after all it is the primary field of study of many empirical sciences. If this is the case, then it seems my justification for such causal judgments must derive from my perception of the world, either through direct observation or extended scientific experiment. However, are causal relations really something we see over and above the objects and events that stand in these relations?

Perception and causal knowledge

The question of whether we can see causal relations of dependence is not an isolated issue. Many other relations of dependence and independence shape our picture of reality.

  • For example, we take the existence of the green coloring on an apple to be dependent on the existence of the apple itself; without the apple there would be no green color.
  • We take the acceleration of a falling rock to be independent of our observation of it.

Importantly, all such relations of dependence and independence share the same logical structure. They all have a form where our knowledge of the relation seems sufficient to award us with knowledge, not merely of what actually occurs, but also of what could or would occur had the world been different than it is. It seems unquestionable that we only perceive what actually occurs. So if we have perceptual knowledge of causation we need to explain how perception of the actual can provide us with knowledge of a merely possible scenario.

In regard to numerous relations of dependence we are thus faced with the same question: on the one hand we seem to have perceptual knowledge of these. On the other hand such knowledge seems to require a degree of justification that many have doubted whether perception can deliver. In this postdoc I wish to employ our knowledge of causal relations as a test case for how we can possess knowledge of relations of dependence and independence in general. In particular I want to defend that perception can indeed deliver the justification needed for knowledge of causal relations of dependence.