Is causality only in the mind?

31 May, 2021 at 10:35 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 3 Comments

James HeckmanI make two main points that are firmly anchored in the econometric tradition. The first is that causality is a property of a model of hypotheticals. A fully articulated model of the phenomena being studied precisely defines hypothetical or counterfactual states. A definition of causality drops out of a fully articulated model as an automatic by-product. A model is a set of possible counterfactual worlds constructed under some rules. The rules may be the laws of physics, the consequences of utility maximization, or the rules governing social interactions, to take only three of many possible examples. A model is in the mind. As a consequence, causality is in the mind.

James Heckman

So, according to this ‘Nobel prize’ winning econometrician, “causality is in the mind.” But is that a tenable view? Yours truly thinks not. If one as an economist or social scientist would subscribe to that view there would be pretty little reason to be interested in questions of causality at all.  And it sure doesn’t suffice just to say that all science is predicated on assumptions. To most of us, models are seen as ‘vehicles’ or ‘instruments’ by which we represent causal processes and structures that exist and operate in the real world. As we all know, models often do not succeed in representing or explaining these processes and structures, but if we didn’t consider them as anything but figments of our minds, well then maybe we ought to reconsider why we should be in the science business at all …

The world as we know it has limited scope for certainty and perfect knowledge. Its intrinsic and almost unlimited complexity and the interrelatedness of its parts prevent the possibility of treating it as constituted by atoms with discretely distinct, separable and stable causal relations. Our knowledge accordingly has to be of a rather fallible kind. To search for deductive precision and rigour in such a world is self-defeating. The only way to defend such an endeavour is to restrict oneself to prove things in closed model-worlds. Why we should care about these and not ask questions of relevance is hard to see. As scientists we have to get our priorities right. Ontological under-labouring has to precede epistemology.

The value of getting at precise and rigorous conclusions about causality based on ‘tractability’ conditions that are seldom met in real life, is difficult to assess. Testing and constructing models is one thing, but we do also need guidelines for how to evaluate in which situations and contexts they are applicable. Formalism may help us a bit down the road, but we have to make sure it somehow also fits the world if it is going to be really helpful in navigating that world. In all of science, conclusions are never more certain than the assumptions on which they are founded. But most epistemically convenient methods and models that work in ‘well-behaved’ systems do not come with warrants that they will work in other (real-world) contexts.


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

  1. Isn’t the Export License that you call for a separate thing that can (or can’t) be appended to a model to link causality within the model to causality in the outside world? In situations without an Export License, it seems to me that Heckman would be right in what he says.
    I’m still in thrall to a big popular book: _The Master and his Emissary_ by Iain McGilchrist. One theme is that we being embodied beings, our senses are part of the real world, and while causality is created by our minds, our minds are created in association with the world.

    • Mel,
      Interesting perspective – it’s a two way street.
      The world creates the mind and the mind creates the world.

      • I think it was Putnam who said that and my understanding is he later backed off of it. I think the original formulation was “the mind and the world create the mind and the world”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at
Entries and Comments feeds.