Time and Singular Causation—A Computational Model

Cognitive Science 44 (7):e12871 (2020)
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Abstract

Causal queries about singular cases, which inquire whether specific events were causally connected, are prevalent in daily life and important in professional disciplines such as the law, medicine, or engineering. Because causal links cannot be directly observed, singular causation judgments require an assessment of whether a co‐occurrence of two events c and e was causal or simply coincidental. How can this decision be made? Building on previous work by Cheng and Novick (2005) and Stephan and Waldmann (2018), we propose a computational model that combines information about the causal strengths of the potential causes with information about their temporal relations to derive answers to singular causation queries. The relative causal strengths of the potential cause factors are relevant because weak causes are more likely to fail to generate effects than strong causes. But even a strong cause factor does not necessarily need to be causal in a singular case because it could have been preempted by an alternative cause. We here show how information about causal strength and about two different temporal parameters, the potential causes' onset times and their causal latencies, can be formalized and integrated into a computational account of singular causation. Four experiments are presented in which we tested the validity of the model. The results showed that people integrate the different types of information as predicted by the new model.

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