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Causation in Science - An interdisciplinary study of causal processes

Awarded: NOK 10.1 mill.

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Project Period:

2011 - 2015


To find causes we need scientific methods. But which methods are best at picking out causation? It seems that, in order to find causes, we must have some prior knowledge of what causation is. While scientists deal with the concrete details, it is philosophers who consider in the abstract what it is for one thing to be a cause of another. In this project, we wanted to bring together that abstract philosophical approach to causation with a more concrete understanding of the work actually undertaken by the practitioners of the sciences. Philosophers have paid an interest in science, attempting to make their philosophical theories better informed empirically. What has been too often neglected is the opposite ideal: of making our scientific practice better informed philosophically. In the case of causation, this is crucial because it can make a significant difference to how science is conducted. If one is persuaded that causes are difference makers, for instance, this is what one will seek to find. If one thinks causes are regularities, one must instead look for them. The methodological basis of the project is that philosophy should not dictate to science and nor should science dictate to philosophy. What we wanted to achieve, however, was a reflective equilibrium: a unified view of causation that is both philosophically and empirically satisfactory. It is one thing for philosophers to decide a priori what would make a good theory of causation, but what use is that if scientists are dealing with something else? By considering both the abstract and the concrete together in unison, we aimed for an account that is philosophically as well as scientifically adequate and complete. The main objectives of the project was to test an existing dispositional theory of causation, previously developed by the PI and her collaborator, against four key sciences in which the issues of causation, emergentism and reduction are central: physics, biology, psychology and the social sciences. The CauSci project has generated a number of high profile publications. Since the start of the project, our research team has published 2 monographs with Oxford University Press, 10 journal articles and 8 chapters in scientific anthologies. A PhD dissertation, Metaphysics in Physics Arguments against Radical Naturalization, considers the relationship between philosophy and science and argues that metaphysical reflections concerning causation, time, space and substance necessarily influence our understanding of physical theories. A second PhD dissertation, Reduction, Emergence and Substance Metaphysics from a Process Perspective, is a criticism of reductionism. A process ontology is proposed as a more emergence-friendly alternative to substance metaphysics. A book manuscript is submitted for What Tends to Be - Essays on the Dispositional Modality. In this book, the philosophical theory of tendencies is applied to a number of areas, such as biology, physics, law, perception, ethics and epistemology. Another main output from the project is the book Causation in Science - On the Methods of Scientific Discovery, forthcoming with Oxford University Press. This book is the culmination of research carried out on the project and addresses the problems of causation as they confront the scientist in their everyday practice. A monthly Philosophy of Science forum was established at NMBU at the start of the project. Later, the Philosophy Café was established as a more popular forum. Podcasts from these events were published on our website: The CauSci workshops attracted graduate students from all over Europe, USA and Australia. Junior researchers have been welcomed on the project, and in 2013 we had 4 Visiting PhD-students at NMBU who were included in the project activities. Since the start of the project, the CauSci team has given more than 60 talks, with most of these being at international conferences and meetings. A book in the Very Short Introduction series of Oxford University Press was written on causation, targeted at students and general readers. In addition, the research was disseminated through popular talks, interviews, a newspaper column and a YouTube film. An interdisciplinary teaching module was established at NMBU, open for BA-, MA- and PhD-students, developed to give students a better understanding of the philosophical foundations of research methods. A project newsletter has been published for collaborators, colleagues and others to keep updated on project activities. Twitter has been used actively by the project team to advertise positions, events and publications through their individual accounts and a project account: @CauSci. Blog: A blog was established for sharing a more popular version of the research

Causation is central to our understanding of how matter, life, minds and society works. This collaborative and interdisciplinary project brings together academics from a range of backgrounds to consider the general theory of causation in relation to their own specialisms. Under the overall direction of a young Norwegian philosopher will be a group that includes Professors Stephen Mumford and John Dupré, two of the world's most respected and innovative thinkers in their fields, and a host of other Norwegia n, European and North American philosophers of science and scientists. The project seeks a better understanding of causal processes in nature, improving our theoretical understanding of causation in general while also solving problems in the sciences in light of the theory. The project will look at how causation is understood in physics, biology, psychology and the social sciences and what problems the notion of causation raises for those sciences. The Project Manager has established a large national and international network of senior and junior academics from a wide range of research fields and institutions. These will contribute with paper presentations and articles for an edited anthology on causation in science. Two PhD-students will also be recruit ed. The disparate interests of the collaborators are united in their view that a correct understanding of causation is key to solving their problems. They will be testing the causal dispositionalist and emergentist hypotheses in relation to their discipl ines, seeking solutions within the framework of that theory while also feeding back and making the theory better empirically informed. This will be a high prestige project that will put Norwegian research at the centre of a network stretching across West ern Europe and beyond, via the collaborators' involvements in other research networks. The project promises a significant number of high-profile outputs, academic, popular, and web-based.

Publications from Cristin

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