Nancy Cartwright
London School of Economics
Knowledge of causal laws is expensive and hard to come by. But we work hard to get it because we believe that it will reduce contingency in planning policies and in building new technologies: knowledge of causal laws allows us to predict reliably what the outcomes will be when we manipulate the factors cited as causes in those laws. Or do they? This paper will argue that causal laws have no special role here. As economists from JS Mill to Robert Lucas and David Hendry stress, along recently with philosophers like James Woodward and Sandra Mitchell, they can do the job only if they are invariant under the manipulations proposed. But then, I shall argue, anything that is invariant under the proposed manipulations will do this job equally well. There seems to be nothing special about causal-law knowledge in and of itself that makes it particularly valuable for policy and technology prediction. What seems to matter is invariance alone, not causality. But what guarantees invariance and how do we know when it will obtain? Here certain kinds of causal laws do have a special place – those underwritten either by what I have called ‘nomological machines’ or by what I have called ‘capacities’. Capacities and nomological machines have a double virtue that makes them invaluable for policy planning. First, the causal laws they give rise to will be invariant so long as they obtain; and second, they typically have visible markers we can come to recognize that tell us when they obtain. The markers for nomological machines are shakier than those for capacities, though, since capacities are often tied to markers by well-established empirical laws. Capacities have their own drawback however, which is the final topic of this paper: the causal laws that are guaranteed by a capacity connect the obtaining of a capacity with its exercise. But Hume argued that no distinction can be made between the obtaining of a power and its exercise.
Keywords No keywords specified (fix it)
Categories No categories specified
(categorize this paper)
Buy the book Find it on
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

PhilArchive copy

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy     Papers currently archived: 60,992
External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

No references found.

Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

The Question of Realism for Powers.Lorenzo Azzano - 2019 - Synthese 196 (1):329-354.
Causalism and Intentional Omission.Joshua Shepherd - 2014 - American Philosophical Quarterly 51 (1):15-26.
Social Dimensions of Moral Responsibility.Anneli Jefferson - 2020 - Philosophical Quarterly 70 (281):868-870.
Dispositional Pluralism. [REVIEW]Vassilis Livanios - 2020 - Philosophical Quarterly 70 (281):881-883.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Causal Laws, Policy Predictions, and the Need for Genuine Powers.Nancy Cartwright - 2007 - In Toby Handfield (ed.), Dispositions and Causes. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press ;. pp. 6-30.
Are Causal Laws a Relic of Bygone Age?Jan Faye - 2017 - Axiomathes 27 (6):653-666.
Causal Laws and Singular Causation.Brian Ellis - 2000 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 61 (2):329-351.
Causal Laws and Singular Causation.Brian Ellis - 2000 - Philosophical and Phenomenological Research 61 (2):329-351.
Causation and Its Relation to 'Causal Laws'.Sheldon R. Smith - 2007 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 58 (4):659-688.
Causes and Contexts: The Foundations of Laser Theory.Margaret Morrison - 1994 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 45 (1):127-151.
Nature's Capacities and Their Measurement.Tim Maudlin & Nancy Cartwright - 1993 - Journal of Philosophy 90 (11):599.
Explanatory Asymmetries: Laws of Nature Rehabilitated.Lina Jansson - 2015 - Journal of Philosophy 112 (11):577-599.
Précis of Nature’s Capacities and Their Measurement.Nancy Cartwright - 1995 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 55 (1):153.
Tropes, Causal Processes, and Functional Laws.Markku Keinänen - 2014 - In Miroslaw Szatkowski & Marek Rosiak (eds.), Substantiality and Causality. De Gruyter. pp. 35-50.


Added to PP index

Total views
9 ( #909,752 of 2,439,394 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
5 ( #136,786 of 2,439,394 )

How can I increase my downloads?


My notes