Lessons for Causal Selection from Biological Practice
Cologne June 2017
Causal selection is the practice of ontologically privileging some causes over others in explanation. Two desiderata must be met for this practice to be justified in biology. First, there must be a causal or explanatory property that sets some causes apart from others. Second, the property identified must be one that is recognized by biologists as illuminating and relevant to their domain(s) of inquiry. There is consensus among philosophers that the criterion for fine-grained influence satisfies both of these conditions. However, biologists have historically privileged some types of fine-grained influence over others. So, to adequately satisfy the second condition an account of the type or kind of fine-grained influence that biologists privilege is needed. A common view among commenters in the causal selection literature has been that biologists privilege actual or natural cases of fine grained influence. I argue that focus on the actual or natural overlooks the explanatory and investigative significance that artificial types of fine-grained influence have for many biologists. This is especially evident when biologists develop new technologies, which often requires that they imagine and hypothesize the nonactual and the non-natural to a great extent. By overlooking artificial fine-grained influence, the philosophical view has mischaracterized the sort of fine-grained influence that many researchers regard as illuminating of their areas of inquiry. Thus, I propose a more nuanced characterization of the sort of fine-grained influence that is of principal causal and explanatory importance to many biologists. I argue that causes with fine-grained influence on life processes however this is achieved are ontologically significant in biology. Moreover, biologists can be unaware of particular cases of fine-grained influence owing to incomplete factual knowledge. Nevertheless, I argue that causes with fine-grained influence on the processes of life are ontologically significant for the purposes of researchers independent of the state of our factual knowledge at a particular point in history.