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Causality: Philosophical Theory meets Scientific Practice

Phyllis Illari and Federica Russo
Publisher: 
Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 
2015
Number of Pages: 
310
Format: 
Hardcover
Price: 
49.99
ISBN: 
9780199662678
Category: 
Anthology
[Reviewed by
Glenn Becker
, on
06/21/2016
]

I work at a large scientific institution of some note. On Friday evenings, a motley group of us meets (on the roof, if the weather is nice) for drinks and snacks and conversation. Scientists and non-scientists are present.

Occasionally the conversational lassos yank in the topic of philosophy. These conversations have convinced me that, in general, scientists fail to see the uses of philosophy; therefore, philosophy and its practitioners often come in for an ungentle ribbing in a variety of accents. I typically fall silent during these interchanges, since I have derived benefits aplenty from the philosophy I have studied.

If you, too, are of the opinion that “practical philosophy” is a contradiction and that philosophy can have no measurable or worthwhile contribution to scientific practice, the authors of Causality are here to gently and expertly convince you otherwise. And they have case studies — lots of them, in fact.

This is a very useful book that contains no visible mathematics; however, the issue of causality both shrouds and underlies important issues in probability and statistics — issues which receive exemplary coverage in this volume. If you are active in the fields of probability and/or statistics, this is a very handy way to become aware of and examine the logical underpinnings of many of the things you do. It’s an overview, but it is thorough.

For my tastes, the tone is just right. Controversial topics do come up (the cigarettes — cancer link is just one of the case studies cited by the authors), but the treatment is unfailingly level-headed and crystal clear. No one would mistake this for a passionate tract, but philosophical passion is perhaps best reserved for other realms: when forging or exploring causal links, a clear head is best. There is just enough light humor to keep the material afloat.

This is also one of those wonderful, concise tomes that sports a very good bibliography, and makes no bones about sending the reader to one of the works there for more details about specific topics. I found no topic that was poorly explained in the main text but, as the authors [themselves say, “[we] offer a map, not an encyclopedia.” Illari and Russo very deftly point out the major attractions of the landscape but send you, well-prepared now to find your own way, to the library for more.

In short, Causality is a very useful tool. 


Glenn Becker is a staff member at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, MA, where he toils in the data archive of the Chandra X-Ray telescope. He is a “reborn astronomy and mathematics fellow traveler” who spent far too many years getting advanced degrees in theater, only to ultimately abandon the entire discipline.

I PRELUDE TO CAUSALITY
1. Problems of causality in the sciences
2. A scientific toolbox for philosophy
3. A philosophical toolbox for science
II CAUSALITY: ACCOUNTS, CONCEPTS, AND METHODS
4. Necessary and sufficient components
5. Levels of causation
6. Causality and evidence
7. Causal methods: probing the data
8. Difference-making: probabilistic causality
9. Difference-making: counterfactuals
10. Difference-making: manipulation and invariance
11. Production accounts: processes
12. Production accounts: mechanisms
13. Production accounts: information
14. Capacities, powers, dispositions
15. Regularity
16. Variation
17. Causality and action
18. Causality and inference
III APPROACHES TO EXAMINING CAUSALITY
19. How we got to the Causality in the Sciences approach (CitS)
20. Examples and counterexamples
21. Truth or models?
22. Epistemology, metaphysics, method, semantics, use
IV CONCLUSION: TOWARDS A CAUSAL MOSAIC
23. Pluralism
24. The causal mosaic under construction: the example of exposomics

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