What do we mean when we say something like ‘the death of my cat caused me great sorrow’? How should we understand such a statement? And what sort of truth-maker makes such a statement true?
The first question is a question about semantics, about the meaning of a causal statement. The second is a question about metaphysics, about what, in the world, makes the causal statement true.
Such questions are related of course. We would usually think that someone who understands such a statement would know how to determine its truth or falsity, and would know, therefore, what sort of situation in the world makes it true or false. Meaning and true go together.
But such questions are much easier to ask than to answer. When posed as philosophical questions they are very difficult to answer. When a philosopher asks such questions they are not, for a start, usually posed as questions about a particular causal statements, but about all causal statements. We are asking in effect what ‘A caused B’ means, and we are asking what sort of situation makes ‘A caused B’ true. We want to know about the semantics and metaphysics of causal statements in general.
We might start by saying that ‘A caused B’ seems to be about a relation, that of causation, between two relata A, and B. But if so, what is this relation, what sort of properties does it have, what sort of things does it relate?
All relations have properties. Some relations are, for example, transitive. The relation ‘taller than’ is transitive. If A is taller than B, and B is taller than C, then A is taller than C. Knowing that a relation is transitive tells us something about the logic of statements referring to that relation, something about the entailments to which one making the statement is committed.
So if we are assuming that causation is a relation, we can ask ‘is causation transitive?’ If A causes B, and B causes C, then does A cause C?
The difficulty is that some causal statements appear to be transitive and some don’t.
If Sam’s pushing Fred caused Fred to fall into the river, and Fred’s falling into the river caused Fred to drown, we would usually think that Sam’s push caused Fred’s drowning. Here transitivity seems to reign.
But here is a set of causal statements for which transitivity does not seem correct:
If Churchill had been German he would have been a Nazi
If Churchill had been a Nazi he would have been a traitor
If Churchill had been born German he would have been a traitor.
So is causation transitive? Or isn’t it?
Causation: A Very Short Introduction: https://sites.google.com/site/ranilillanjum/research/causationvsi
An interview with the authors of ‘A Very short Introduction to Causation’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvAuQ337YRs&feature=youtu.be