University of Cambridge > > CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar > Why common cause explanation is not the main business of historical reconstruction

Why common cause explanation is not the main business of historical reconstruction

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It’s sometimes thought that the historical sciences—archaeology, paleontology and geology, for instance—are substantively different from other, ‘experimental’, sciences. In making such claims, abstract accounts of scientific methods are often contrasted. A common story about historical reconstruction is that it relies on common cause explanation: we uncover the past by discovering surprising correlations between traces, and then hypothesizing events in the past which would unify them. But what is the warrant for such inferences, and is it actually the main business of historical reconstruction? To the first question, I argue that appealing to common causes is often justified, but not on the grounds thus far suggested. Where others prefer common cause reasoning to be justified on some global, a priori or a posteriori fact, I argue that that they are justified on local a posteriori grounds. To the second question, I concede that the identification of common causes is an important aspect of historical construction, but argue that taking it as the central method of historical reconstruction is impoverished and can’t explain such science’s successes. I’ll discuss how the richness of our understanding of past causal milieus often plays a central role in warranting historical reconstruction, and close by making some suggestions about how philosophers ought to approach evidential reasoning in the sciences.

This talk is part of the CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar series.

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