Mechanisms, singular and general

Let’s think again about the semantics of causal ascriptions. Suppose that we want to know what  caused a building crane to collapse during a windstorm. We might arrive at an account something like this:

  • An unusually heavy gust of wind at 3:20 pm, in the presence of this crane’s specific material and structural properties, with the occurrence of the operator’s effort to adjust the crane’s extension at 3:21 pm, brought about cascading failures of structural elements of the crane, leading to collapse at 3:25 pm.

The process described here proceeds from the “gust of wind striking the crane” through an account of the material and structural properties of the device, incorporating the untimely effort by the operator to readjust the device’s extension, leading to a cascade from small failures to a large failure. And we can identify the features of causal necessity that were operative at the several links of the chain.

Notice that there are few causal regularities or necessary and constant conjunctions in this account. Wind does not usually bring about the collapse of cranes; if the operator’s intervention had occurred a few minutes earlier or later, perhaps the failure would not have occurred; and small failures do not always lead to large failures. Nonetheless, in the circumstances described here there is causal necessity extending from the antecedent situation at 3:15 pm to the full catastrophic collapse at 3:25 pm.

Does this narrative identify a causal mechanism? Are we better off describing this as a sequences of cause-effect sequences, none of which represents a causal mechanism per se? Or, on the contrary, can we look at the whole sequence as a single causal mechanism — though one that is never to be repeated? Does a causal mechanism need to be a recurring and robust chain of events, or can it be a highly unique and contingent chain?

Most mechanisms theorists insist on a degree of repeatability in the sequences that they describe as “mechanisms”. A causal mechanism is the triggering pathway through which one event leads to the production of another event in a range of circumstances in an environment. Fundamentally a causal mechanism is a “molecule” of causal process which can recur in a range of different social settings.

For example:

  • X typically brings about O.

Whenever this sequence of events occurs, in the appropriate timing, the outcome O is produced. This ensemble of events {X, O} is a single mechanism.

And here is the crucial point: to call this a mechanism requires that this sequence recurs in multiple instances across a range of background conditions.

This suggests an answer to the question about the collapsing crane: the sequence from gust to operator error to crane collapse is not a mechanism, but is rather a unique causal sequence. Each part of the sequence has a causal explanation available; each conveys a form of causal necessity in the circumstances. But the aggregation of these cause-effect connections falls short of constituting a causal mechanism because the circumstances in which it works are all but unique. A satisfactory causal explanation of the internal cause-effect pairs will refer to real repeatable mechanisms — for example, “twisting a steel frame leads to a loss of support strength”. But the concatenation does not add up to another, more complex, mechanism.

Contrast this with “stuck valve” accidents in nuclear power reactors. Valves control the flow of cooling fluids around the critical fuel. If the fuel is deprived of coolant it rapidly overheats and melts. A “stuck valve-loss of fluid-critical overheating” sequence is a recognized mechanism of nuclear meltdown, and has been observed in a range of nuclear-plant crises. It is therefore appropriate to describe this sequence as a genuine causal mechanism in the creation of a nuclear plant failure.

(Stuart Glennan takes up a similar question in “Singular and General Causal Relations: A Mechanist Perspective”; link.)

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