Thursday, January 26, 2012

Did Socrates' death cause his wife to be a widow?

I'm teaching a class celled Metaphysics and Epistemology this semester. One of the books for the class is by John Carroll and Ned Markosian and it's entitled An Introduction to Metaphysics. A number of students found the example of the passage below perplexing (this appears on page 29):

"When Socrates drank the hemlock and died in the Athenian prison, his wife, Xanthippe, became a widow. Did Socrates' death cause Xanthippe to become a widow?... Many philosophers find this conclusion unacceptable. The worry is that any relation holding between these two events is bound not to be of the tangible/physical sort one normally expects causation to be. The connection seems to be too much a conceptual matter. To drive home this point, sometimes it is argued that, since Xanthippe was not in the prison with Socrates, his death could not have caused her to become a widow. She became a widow the instant he died. Since there is no instantaneous causal action at a distance in a world like ours where no signals travel faster than light, his death didn't cause her widowhood."

If I were taking the class, I'd be tempted to write one of my papers on something related to this example. There are some fascinating questions that are raised in this short passage. Can there be instantaneous causation at a distance? Does causation require a "tangible/physical" bond between two events? If she became a widow the instant he died, then what (if not his death) caused this effect?

I'm hoping readers will make some suggest some answers to these questions and shed some light on these issues.


Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating question!

What comes to mind is that our notion of "causality" is strongly tied to the idea of a causal agent operating through some physical mechanism of action to bring about a causal consequence or effect. (This picture of causality is, one might say, purely physical.)

This, incidently, is why it is hard to get a grasp of the idea of a mental event (say an intention or desire) bringing about or 'causing' some physical change in the world, like my intention to raise my hand causes my hand to go up.

So, does having been born of March 20th "cause" you to be 16 years old on March 20th 16 years later? Well, one wants to say that this is the "reason" that you are 16 years old 16 years later, not the cause. That means that there is a difference between 'reasons' and 'causes' - an interesting topic in itself.

One also wants to say that as a consequence of having been born on March 20th, you are 16 years old 16 years later. Here, "consequence" does not mean "causal consequence." So, there are facts, (states of affairs) that can be explained by other facts (states of affairs) where it is clear that the explanation being given is not causal.

Jesse Steinberg said...

Thanks for the comment, Anon. Your remark about reasons and causes is a good one and one might add to the list 'explanation.' There seems to be an interesting connection between causes, reasons, and the causal explanations we give for a given effect. A complicated issue indeed!

Did I steal that example about age from you or is it the other way around? I used it in class on Thursday. In any case, I think it's a good example. We might also think about mathematical cases (the fact that the shape is a triangle and the fact that its internal angles add up to 180 degrees) or meaning (the fact that Joe is a bachelor and the fact that Joe is unmarried). These are interesting on many levels. Can facts be causes? Does it make any sense to say that the first sort of fact CAUSES the second sort of fact to (I don't know what to say here...) to be a fact?

Jesse Steinberg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Well, I agree that this is quite confusing.

Does the fact that it is raining heavily cause the swelling of the river and consequent flooding of the city or rather is it that the heavy rain causes the swelling of the river and consequent flooding of the city? It seems odd to say that the fact is the cause (what exactly are facts?).

But it might just be that the fact that it is raining is nothing over and above the heavy rain. In which case, in this sort of case, a fact can be a cause. But it seems to be a convoluted way of talking about things ocurring (rain).

Does the fact that I hit the golf ball cause the ball to fly into the house window? Well, my hitting the golf ball surely caused it to fly into the house window. Perhaps only in a court of law, where the homeowner is sueing me for damage to the window, would the attorney say that the fact that I hit the ball caused the damage.

Again, if facts are "states of affairs," then what's the difference between it raining and the state of affairs that it is raining?

Anonymous said...

In regard to the difference between it is raining and the fact that it is raining, condsider the following:

1) The moon is a thing.
2) The word 'moon' designates a thing.

The first statement is in what you might call a "material mode" of speaking. The second statement is in a "formal" or "linguistic" mode of speaking. Do these two statements say the same thing about the moon?


1) It is raining.
2) It is a fact that it is raining.

Do these say the same thing?

Jesse Steinberg said...

I don't know if (1) and (2) have the same meaning. Regarding the first set of statements, (2) is partly about language (i.e., the WORD 'moon') and (1) is not. As Anon noted, linguists/philosophers of language treat these statements differently. But it's hard to see what the difference is if they don't mean the same thing. (Those of you interested in philosophy of language should check out the semantics/pragmatics distinction. There's a ton of interesting stuff looming here.)

One thing we might think about is the circumstances in which it would be appropriate to utter such statements. Under what conditions might one say (1) vs. (2)?

To be totally frank, philosophers seem to using some of these expressions in very odd ways. Non-philosophers I know would never say anything like the first (2). As for the second (2) when would one say "It's a fact that it's raining"? I can see it if we were having an argument about the weather and I wanted to stress that it was indeed raining. There may be other circumstances, but they're few and far between. But what does any of this show about how we ought to think about (1) and (2)?

Bringing this back to the causation issue, what's the difference between saying:

(3) The rain caused the road to be slippery.
(4) The fact that it is raining caused the road to be slippery.

We might add to the list statements involving states of affairs or other (purported) ontological categories.

So far we don't have a resolution to the issues raised. We're just getting a bit more clear about the "ontological problem" having to do with the nature of the relata that bear causal relations. Hopefully someone will chime in here with some answers. Questions are good too, but...

Anonymous said...

Well, let's try an answer to the question of whether Socrates' death caused his wife to be a widow.

If by "cause" you mean to be talking about a causal agent or occurrence operating through a physical mechanism of action in producing a causal consequence, then becuase there is no "physical mechanism" by which her widowhood is brought about, we can't talk about causality (in this sense) being at work here. That is to say, there is no physical chain or physical connection linking the causal agent to the causal consequence.

As we said earlier, " his death resulted in her widowhood" or "as a consequence of his death she became a widow," would seem appropriate to say. But that means that these expressions do not refer to "physical causality."

Is there an appropriate use of "cause" where we don't require a physical mechanism or physical chain linking the cause with the effect?

How about my being promoted to full professor caused my department to have 17 full professors (as opposed to 16)? Here an action (my appointment) led to a consequence that raised the number of professors in my department. Again, as Nancy Cartwright would say, "no cause in, no cuase out!"

That's my story and I sticking to it.

Anonymous said...

How about this?

One might say that there are different ways of describing causes and effects in so far as you can expand the description of the cause or of the effect in regard to the puirpose of the explanation being offered.


1) The bird's laying of an egg in the nest caused there to be an egg in the nest.(This might be a causal explanation that would be given in contrast to one where the egg got there by some other means.)

2) The bird's laying of a second egg in the nest caused there to be two eggs in the nest. (This might also be a causal explanation that would be given in contrast to one where the egg got there by some other means.)

3) Socrates' having taken the Hemlock (which caused his death) caused his wife to be a widow. (This might be an explanation that would be given in contrast to one where someone murdered Socrates such that his wife became a widow.)

4. Sorates' death caused his wife to become a widow. What would be the contrast here? Could something else have caused his wife to become a widow? Is there another way of becomming a widow other than in the event of the death of a husband?

Can anyone explain what the point of these examples is?

Corey Gibson said...

In this example is there a strong connection between events? One might say that Xanthippe becoming a widow is not an event. Whether it is an event or state of affairs it would be odd to think that Xanthippe becoming a widow was uncaused. It cannot be uncaused because something had to cause her to become a widow. She became a widow the instant he died. There is no instantaneous causal action at distance in our world. I'm not sure what the cause could because it seems like everything that could be a cause has a better counter argument.

Joe Hannon said...

It would seem to me that there need not be a physical connection between two objects in order to constitute causation. Is it that troubling to think of non-physical connections as having the ability to cause. By definition, Xanthippe became a widow at the very moment that Socrates died. It doesn't seem like she becomes any more or less a widow by being informed (or uninformed) of his death, only aware of her widowhood. Socrates' death would be the only event which could cause Xanthippe to become a widow, and therefore, his death did in fact cause her to become a widow.