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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Language of Causation

One of the great verbal tricksters in English is the word cause, especially when used as a noun with the definite article the, as in a sentence like (1), which is clearly false.

(1) Smoking is the cause of lung cancer.
Even occurrences of the indefinite article a when it occurs in a sentence like (2) are problematic. This sentence suggests that smoking all by itself can cause cancer which is surely false..
(2) Smoking is a cause of cancer.
The same is true of generic verb occurrences of cause, as in (3).
(3) Smoking causes lung cancer.
If you are head of a tobacco company being sued you will want people to make claims like (1),(2), and (3) since none of them stands any chance of being true. Though they are used very frequently, such claims as these are very easily falsified because every event or state of affairs will normally have multiple causes. In the case of smoking, ones genetic make up has a bearing on whether or not a person will get lung cancer. Environmental factors are likely to play a role as well.

What makes generic claims so tricky is that we readily assent to a claim like (4) even though we know that more than half of the lion population, namely the females and the cubs, don't have manes.

(4) Lions have manes.
Similarly, even though (3) makes the very strong claim that smoking alone can cause cancer, it is consistent with some people being life-long smokers and never contracting lung cancer. That is, it is consistent with (6).
(6) Smoking doesn't always cause lung cancer.
This is the beauty of generic claims -- they make very strong (because highly general) claims but they aren't falsified by counterexamples. They live a good life, as the lives of propositions go.

I ran across a number of claims containing "not the cause of" such as

(7) HIV Is Not the Cause of AIDS
(8) Cosmic Rays Are Not the Cause of Climate Change, Scientists Say
(9) Income inequality is not the cause of this nation's social problems.
(10) Gun ownership is not the cause of America's high murder rate.
The last two come from the same web site and are quite comical. Only an idiot would claim that income inequality is THE cause of the nation's social problems or even worse that gun ownership is THE cause of America's high murder rate. Obviously, for a murder to occur, the gun owner will have to load the gun, take the safety off, point it accurately at the intended victim, and pull the trigger and do all of this with the intent to kill (at least for first degree murder) so we know that gun ownership simpliciter does not cause murder. Moreover, there are causes of murder not involving guns such as strangling someone with ones hands or using a garrote or knifing someone to death (cf the O. J. Simpson murder trial) or running them over with a car or whacking them with a baseball bat and etc.

The eighth claim is more interesting. The claim at issue is this one

In July 2003, astrophysicist Nir Shaviv and geologist Jan Veizer wrote in GSA Today that they had established a correlation between cosmic rays and temperature evolution over hundreds of millions of years. They also claimed that current global warming is not primarily caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide. Their findings have been widely reported in international news media.
Notice first that (8) is actually the headline for a news release and was almost surely composed by a PR guy/gal, not an actual scientist. Moreover, the passage quoted does not provide support for the idea that cosmic rays are THE cause of climate change. All the scientists seem to have established, if they established anything, was "a correlation between cosmic rays and temperature evolution over hundreds of millions of years. [emphasis added]" I don't know whether these scientists said anything like "current global warming is not primarily caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide [emphasis added]" but this kind of claim is of interest as well. Scientists who ought to know better say things like "the primary reason for X is Y" or "the real reason for X is Y." I suspect I have used both in the past. These are naughty claims. When you have a set of causes of some event Y, how do you establish one of them as the primary one? [At this point I might have gone into Aristotle's four causes but I have been warned against having overlong blogs.]

As sentient beings who are proud of our mental possessions, we tend to attach great importance to our decisions and actions as event movers and shakers. But there are always other factors. When, as in the case of cosmic rays, there are no human sentient beings involved religious people will sometimes evoke God's choosing to subject us to his/her wrath by, say, raining cosmic rays onto us. Jerry Falwell once said, for instance, "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals." Who knew? I thought it was a virus. We have to expect that from God, I suppose, for as Archibald McLeish wrote in his play JB "If God is God, God is not good. If God is good, God is not God."

Right now, plaintiff's lawyers are going after Merck and its product, Vioxx. In this and in all other liability cases, I suspect, the issue of who caused what and the relative importance of different causes lie at the heart of the suit. I picked up the following collection of sentences from the article linked to the title of this blog. There is not just the headline (11), but also (12)-(17), for you to entertain yourself with.

(11) Cardiologist: Vioxx did not cause postal worker's heart attack.
(12) A postal worker who suffered a heart attack had a buildup of plaque in his arteries that was not caused by the since-withdrawn painkiller Vioxx,...
(13) ...only minimal plaque buildup is needed to cause the "small, modest" heart attack...
(14) Humeston, 60, is suing Vioxx maker Merck & Co., blaming his heart attack on intermittent use of the drug over two months.
(15) The plaque broke off, causing Humeston's heart attack, he said.
(16) ... Tyberg testified that Vioxx does not cause plaque buildup.
(17) "Did Mr. Humeston have sufficient plaque in his arteries to cause a heart attack?" Sullivan asked.
This gives you a taste of how loosely "cause" and what we might call "causal words" such as "blame," as in "X blames Y on Z," were used in the article and in court. Not a single one of these uses is intellectually respectable. Even (15) doesn't attribute the attack to what Aristotle might have called "the final cause" -- that would have been, the obstruction of blood flow. It could be that narrowed arteries at the point the clot lodged itself played a role as well. Perhaps the best guidance for us is to drop the word "cause" from our vocabularies. The chances are that nothing good will come from their use.

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42 Comments:

Blogger S.R. Deardorff said...

I'm falling in love with you, language guy.

Muah!

P. I don't want to have your babies though. Great post; just one question?whadya do bout foke like me dat like ta dice n slice!chopchop!language for the sake of (work with me here, you're a ripe potato):

CREATentertaiFUNnmentandIVITY?!

For the love of wordplay.

Peace,

Sean

3:04 PM

 
Blogger J_G said...

To say that there are multiple reasons for an event or circumstance to happen is probably the safest way to explain the end result. I have in the past worked diligently in an effort to retain my freedom to own firearms. The debate formed around your example " Gun ownership is not the cause of America's high murder rate." can be considered a reason why there are organazations dedicated to controlling this debate.

Can having complete contol over the language be considered theoretical "parsing" in anything other than the legal, corporate or high technical fields where words and meanings must be exact?

This all seems to be be very interesting to me but as I said when I first started posting, my formal education is sorely lacking. My coworkers, friends and family believe I am adept at making my point with great clarity.

I am not afraid to make a fool of myself to learn what it is I set out to learn. I'm usually adept at that also.

Many of the people I come in contact with are very concerned that the language used in common contracts or legal agreements are too complicated for the average person to fully understand.

The examples that you use to make your point about the word "cause" are also issues that spark great emotion and have become political rallying points to divide. That's easy to do. What words do you believe can be used in the same manner to inspire people to work together and treat each other with respect? Are there such words? I've been looking for them for many years.

3:45 PM

 
Blogger Copernicus Now said...

A few times, in spare moments, I have driven myself happily crazy trying to analyze words like 'cause' and 'because'.

I would marvel that, no matter how I tried, I could never seem to use them precisely enough. No matter how hard I tried, I could find a single statement of the type 'X caused Y' that I could utter with certainty.

I admit that my game was about as productive as trying to determine how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. But, since I was shy with girls, I had to fill my time doing something.

Now I wonder if these words can only mean whatever it is they mean if they are used rather imprecisely.

My question to you is: How far can we go in saying something has a specific, precise cause?

8:39 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Sean, slicing and dicing the language is good for fun and, if Joyce made any money from "Ulysses", profit.

j_g, I just turned down a few thousand bucks when I decided not to help a lawyer working for a company trying to defend a false advertising claim by claiming that the claim the firm he was representing had made was literally true. I decided that while I could honestly defend what was said, it went against my view that the literal truth of an advertising claim is of little value in evaluating it. What it implies to consumers is much more important.

Copernicus: in empirical science, one tries to prove that this or that is a factor in causing some result. This permits one to say thing that in the absence of oxygen, striking a match will not cause it to catch fire. The goal is to isolate all the relevant factors. Statistically based claims such as the ones that ended up nailing the cigarette companies basically involved showing that there was a significant difference in the number of deaths of people of a certain age range between groups of smokers and nonsmokers where the groups met conditions for statistical significance. Though I believe statistically significant claims are worthy ones a lot of mischief can be done with them.

--
Mike

7:05 AM

 
Blogger J_G said...

LG, Having been through the litigation process from claims brought on by the use of PCB (poly chlorinated biphenyl)as a transformer coolant on rail vehicles. I am quite familiar with the word "cause". The questions during the the discovery process were painful and necessary. Did PCBs cause the death of my Father? Not directly. He died of Lymphoma and malignant melanoma Did PCBs cause the Lymphoma and malignant melanoma? It was a contributing factor. This was an important case among my coworkers, my family and I. PCBs have never been proven to be a cause for cancer. The replacement transformer cooling liguid they currently use is a known carcinogen, benzene.

On a lighter note. One of my favorite advertising play on words goes like this. "Use alka-seltzer night time cold relief, nothing works better". I took their advise and I saved my money and now I use nothing :-)

9:38 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

I am sorry about your father. The bad thing about "cause" from the plaintiff's side is how hard it is to prove that the defendant's product or action was a -- not the, for that would be too hard -- sine qua non.

Your response to alka-seltzer's ad is hilarious.

Years ago, the Lennox air conditioning company ran a radio ad I was listening to just as I was turning left off Olentangy Road to go on campus and could see the Lennox manufacturing company looking under a 315 bridge. It sounded like "We offer the most inconvenience and quality." Neither the ad copy writer nor anyone else with the ad company seems ever to have read it out loud to a focus group. Even so, we expect ads to say favorable things about products so even that might not have helped.

10:11 AM

 
Blogger J_G said...

LG,
Sorry about my spelling. I normally keep an open "Word" document running to check spelling and grammar. You are right about these small boxes. I don't have the option to enlarge the comment box so I must be more diligent about checking my comments for errors.

10:21 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

L. Guy, tho you didn,t answer my qestion directly (about the word, several) & I said I would never look at your blog again. Not having anything else to do I read this post. Hurrah! my question has been answered. It is the idea that the word was meant to be vague. (I now don't think the dumb bastard knew how many times He'd been over). Not being an intellectual or anything like that, I still get bugged when people use words with no real logic behind them. I guess that is why religion generally bugs the hell out of me(& politics, Arggh!) You have showed me something about myself that will be of benifit in the future. Regarding the rest of your blog, My head started to hurt & I'd already been to the big Dictionary 3 times so I'll pass on the rest of the post.

10:49 AM

 
Blogger Dancing Crow said...

Hey! Language Guy, Does this explain why
legal definitions seem so different from the common venachular? (I bet I mis-spelled that one in a new way.)

Thank you for the blog by the way. You are waking up things in my memory that I thought I had lost. By reading and responding to your material I am starting to "come back".

I wish I could have my old teachers back now that I can properly appreciate them. Oh well! such is my life.

12:26 PM

 
Blogger S.R. Deardorff said...

For all those looking for a way to keep tabs on their spelling and vocabulary, try a program called iFinger 2.1. You can download it from Download.com. It's a taskbar dictionary that, when you highlight a word and press Ctrl-F11, brings up its definition and usage. Spybot and Adware found no malicious programs or files after install either, it's safe!

Peace,

Sean

12:48 PM

 
Blogger J_G said...

My curiosity always seems to lead me into unfamiliar places and I always seem to enjoy the adventure.

I read some of your earlier posts with the definition of what a Linguist is. I think that is a very interesting profession. The learning of the origins and history especially interests me.

I recently read a book that was written by Louis L'Amour called the "Walking Drum". A very close friend gave it to me and I thought that it was going to be a "Western" novel. The book turned out to be Mr. L'Amour's last book and it was not a "Western". The setting is in the 9th century AD. The main character is a French Celt and he travels around Europe looking for his Father that has been abducted by assassins.

In the book the main character (MC) talks about how there were so many different libraries that were maintained by the Islamic controlled cultures of the Mediterranean. The MC learns some of the Islamic languages and is considered to be a scholar because he can read and speak a few of the different languages. According to Mr. L'amour, he researched this subject thoroughly and it was quite interesting.

I often wonder if civilization would be further advanced today if the libraries and knowledge of those times would have been better preserved. I understand that the library of Alexandria held a great wealth of knowledge and it was all lost. One has to ask if this is divine intervention or a random catastrophe. I am always questioning and I thoroughly enjoy the discussion.

12:52 PM

 
Blogger Dana said...

Interesting post! I have often heard people say something similar to: "That's right, because I heard on t.v. that..."

I know what they mean. So do you. But saying that hearing something on tv makes whatever they are talking about "right" can be amusing to those with a linguistic bent.

Words do not mean what their speakers mean to people who insist on what the words literally mean.

4:08 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"and etc" should be "etc"

8:23 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

I want to take a moment to tell you why I like your site. being a hillbilly w/no education to speak of, (barly made it through 8th grade then went to a Caholic reform school where there was no education to speak of) I've always been interested in cranial pursuits. That's probabaly a horrible sentence, but if I worried about my grammer & spelling I'd have to be silent. Your site is a good way for me to educate myself & get a look at what you academic types are like.
Also, I can't resist getting envolved in a good argument(debate). After all we are known to feud over anything. One reason I had trouble in school was we had to move all the time because my father would always start a feud w/the neighbors & we'd get kicked out. So, I think I have a bit of it in me. Hopefully in a constructive way.
Also your site is a good way to meet other people. It is easy to decide whether or not I'd like some people by the comments they make to you. I do not like to talk to religiuos(sp)people, Esp.fundamental Christians. I'm sure at some point I'll offend them or visa versa.
Anyway, there you go.
Looking forward to your new posts.

10:31 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

You have once again inspired me to write a post, this time about the legal view of causation. You're probably already aware of it, but your readers may not be.

10:38 AM

 
Blogger J_G said...

Kelly, The cause-in-fact that my eyes hurt right now are; The reaction my eyes have to the black background of your website combined with the bright white color of the fonts. I have been seeing your post now for the last four to five minutes after I changed the page. I think you have discovered a new advertising scheme. You can call it "Take the ad with you" :-)

T, As far as I am concerned there are different types of people that you may refer to as "Fundamental Christians". There are those that will beat you over the head with their bible and then there are those that will use their bible as a brick to rebuild your house that was destroyed in a storm, as fuel for your gas tank when you have run out of gas on a deserted road in the middle of the night, as fuel for a fire to cook you a meal when you are starving and have nothing to eat or as chair to sit upon so you may sit and talk because you have no one to talk to. Being a "Fundamental Christian" to me means helping and loving my fellow human and not beating them on the head with an implement of my faith.

6:25 PM

 
Blogger L>T said...

j-g, thanks for the typical christian answer. They all say that. & if you are such a great Christian, why are you being mean to kelly. Jesus wouldn't be mean to Kelly.

10:55 PM

 
Blogger L>T said...

Whoops! See, I can't help it.

10:59 PM

 
Blogger J_G said...

T, Even Christians can have a sense of humor.

I can't really say what Jesus would say about web pages that are hard on the eyes.

I'm used to having people that aren't Christians tell me what Jesus would or wouldn't do though.

7:44 AM

 
Blogger Le vent fripon said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:16 AM

 
Blogger uglygirl said...

j_g, perhaps those persons you spoke of are called Humans, or let me take a step forward and say, "good humans", and they can be christians or "heathens". I am an idol-worshipping hindu from india, and believe in being nice to people for the heck of it. and personally, since conversion seems to be a part of the missionary, i dont thinkof that word in as good a way as you seem to do. I dont believe in religion per se, but have a problem with the ones which seem to exclude some and include some others. Hinduism with all its evils, doesn't say anything about preaching it to others and converting them.
And i am comfortable with that.

9:20 AM

 
Blogger Le vent fripon said...

I think the analysis in this post is very interesting, but become skeptical when someone mentions "the literal truth" of a statement.

In a discussion on "speach act theory," Stanley Fish offers a rebuttal to Searle's claim that a question like "can you reach the salt?" has 1) the literal meaning "are you capable of reaching the salt?" and 2) the non-literal meaning "would you pass me the salt?" He argues that the statement has only one meaning, and that this meaning depends on context, so that at the dinner table it probably means 2) and in the supermarket (if the salt is on a high shelf) may mean 1).

Likewise I don't think we should be too critical of certain rather unscientific uses of "cause." You mention that in advertising "the literal truth of an advertising claim is of little value in evaluating it." I think what should be said is that the real truth-value of the statement is most important, given the context in which the statement is received, i.e. the non-academic context of the living rooms of sleepy tv watchers.

In non-technical contexts, the statements "smoking causes cancer" or "smoking kills" are very well formulated, and are more likely to be interpreted as "smoking increases the risk of getting cancer," than this more scientific formulation itself. The first two would certainly be more effective at saving lives, if they were printed on cigarette cartons.

9:25 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

Jesus wouldn't be mean to me (he likes my tattoos), but I don't think J_g was being mean to me either.

Does my site really have that effect? I thought white text on a black background was supposed to be easier on the eyes than the reverse.

9:44 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

I hope it is not rude to use L.guy's site to talk to other people. (Iam new to blog ettiquite)
Kelly, as much as I hate to admit it, the christian person is right. A black background is great for grapics & photos but not writting.
Christian lady, sorry about flying off the handle, but I did warn you.

9:53 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

P.S. Ugly girl, I take off my hat to you or bow and scrape my head on the floor, whatever turns you on. thanks, Shona.

9:57 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

Hey, back to the post: 'The language of Causation'
This is a word that bugs me, 'believe'. Why? Because people are always implying that belief is fact. They want you to believe that believing in a religion means that they think it is true. Believing some thing does not make it fact, not even to the person saying it. Belief is faith not factual. I know this sounds like splitting hairs, but, It takes as much faith for an atheist to not believe in God as it does for the religious to believe in him.
Think about it.
You are only a side of the same coin.

10:14 AM

 
Blogger J_G said...

I am reading on LG's blog one of the reasons why there is a need for someone like LG. It is apparent that no matter what one says or writes it is always interpreted differently according to another person's prejudices and understanding.

I meant no ill will to Kelly when I told him his website template is distracting in its format of a black background and white fonts. It reminds me of when you turn the television off and the picture still appears to be on the screen as a negative. That is all I meant. It might be my eyes or it maybe a function of my computer. I enjoyed what Kelly had to say and tried to acknowledge that by the way I posted my comment. Whew!

Next, if I was traveling down the road at night and I saw someone that was broke down. I would cautiously stop and offer my assistance by calling a tow truck on my cell phone and or if I thought it was safe enough I would take that person to the nearest gas station. I would not ask if they where a Christian or if they were anything else in order for me to help them. I would however keep my hand on my .45 Colt automatic pistol until I deemed safe enough to proceed with helping someone in that kind of situation. Can you understand what I'm getting at? I may be a Christian and I may try and do the best I can but I won't be pushed around and taken advantage of either. I can hold my own in this mixed up and crazy world and all I ask is for Jesus to help me. That's enough on that.

LG has a blog on a subject that interests me. I found it because of his other website about the "Big Darby Creek". I grew up about fifteen miles west of Philadelphia in Delaware County. There is a creek that I swam, fished and learned about nature in when I was growing up. The name of that creek is "Darby Creek". The attraction to LG's other website is obvious. Thank you LG for being a gracious host.

10:47 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

ARGH! The head that was scraping the floor is now banging its self bloody in frustration.

11:46 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

l>t, the conditions for felicitous use of "believe" and "know" are very different. Both require evidence, but normally "know" provides evidence amounting to certainty, i.e., higher than "beyond any reasonable doubt."

Jurors, for instance, do not have to certify that they know the defendant did the bad thing but just that they believe that he did it beyond any reasonable doubt, which is, of course, way stronger than saying just that they think or believe that he did it.

3:27 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

In regards to LG's last comment, that's exactly the reason Nicole Simpson's family could still sue OJ on the theory that he caused Nicole's death. In the criminal trial, nothing was proved beyond a reasonable doubt. This doesn't prevent them from trying to prove the exact same facts by a preponderance of the evidence. The latter standard just means a more than 50% chance of truth.

Of course, when you switch it around you are barred. For example, assume X sues Y, arguing that Y burned his house down. X loses (failing to prove it by a preponderance of the evidence). If the government attempts to prosecute Y on the same facts, they will lose at the pleading stage. If you can't prove something by a preponderance, then you can't prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. This is basically a judicial efficiency concern.
The above concept is called collateral estoppel.

Of course, there are some requirements to satisfy here to ensure that X and Y aren't in it together to defraud the insurance company, but those are the basics.

5:29 PM

 
Blogger J_G said...

When using different words to make a point or express your assessment of a given situation. I prefer the word "appears". This connotation has an added effect if you are giving your educated opinion.

The work that was just performed on this train appears to be completed correctly.

7:27 PM

 
Blogger Copernicus Now said...

Hi L_G,

As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I have (happily) wasted a lot of time in the past trying to make sense of words like 'cause'. Your post has rekindled my interest in this crazy game.

I am no linguist, just a hack, but I am hoping you would go easy on me if I take another stab at it.

Here goes.

It seems to me that if we try to analyze the word 'cause' in isolation from any particular context, we tend to regard it as entailing certain archetypical standards.

Some of these standards are related to language structures.

For example, when we use 'cause' as a noun preceded by a definite article (the + cause), we expect it to behave like a count noun, and we must then contend with the notion that causality is a countable definite thing.

More to the point, this structure infuses us with the intuitive sense that there should be a unique cause for whatever phenomena we are performing causal analysis on.

Other standards seem to be derived from notions we have related to certain idealized, and perhaps formal thinking behaviours.

For example, we tend to look to the type of thinking used in scientific analysis, courtroom thinking, formal logic, philosophical reasoning, etc., to top up our standards for how the word should be used.

Once we have become persuaded that these standards are appropriate, they become part of our definition of 'cause'. And we may use them to analyze a given usage. Much as you have done above.

[Now, before I go on, L_G, I want to say that I am not trying to be a wise guy. I am not attacking what you say in your analyses above. In fact, I think I agree with much or all of it. But there are features of the word 'cause' that interest me. And that's what I want to ramble on about.]

What interests me is that, the word 'cause' -- when isolated -- seems to have a tendency to be built on a model of the universe that only can only be successfully applied under very limited circumstances.

For example, the intuition that causes should have uniqueness, needs to constantly be bolstered by qualifications like "final" cause, or "proximate" cause. (If our intuitions were true, such qualifications would be redundant).

There are few unqualified situations in the universe (I would warrant) where we really could say that there is exactly one cause for X.

(I suspect) Most phenomena could not be successfully analyzed for causality using such models as the basis of the meaning 'cause'.

Humpty Dumpty's great folly suggests that it's often better to base our understanding of a word's meaning on common usage and common understanding. And common usage very frequently does not depend on these entailments.

Humpty Dumpty aside, I think there is a definite place for this type of analysis. The analysis you did. I think there are very definitely uses that are specious, and such analysis helps us to identify charlatanry and sloppy reasoning.

But I think it is also worth pointing out that, while the word 'cause' is an extremely important one, it also rests upon a weak (though useful) model of reality.

And for that reason, not only must we be on guard with its usage, but also with analysis of that usage.

11:50 PM

 
Blogger J_G said...

I read an article last night about a woman that believes she has a justification for her cause. This woman plans to chain herself to a fence so that it will effect a change in the present position of the adminstration. I believe this action is a lost cause and will not have the desired affect. The woman's actions might even impede the change in the adminstration's position.

I have to admit that after a night of appearing to have been supervising workmen, I think trying to make sense may be a lost cause and may tend to have an affect on mental health.

8:12 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

Cause is a tricky word alright. It seems to me that it is useful in all its meanings (the big Dictionary gives 7 as a noun, plus; efficient cause, final cause, formal cause, etc. plus; as a conj., v.t. & v.i. Plus all the words before and after w/cause in them. Our complex minds demand more of some words then others. It makes me think that if I have to go to court, I'll take my dictionary. But of course that's what lawyers are for, to define cause. Philosophers can jack you around w/words, but they are easier to pin down then lawyers

10:29 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

By the way, thanks to j_g for letting me know about my template. I've changed it. Let me know what you think.

2:17 PM

 
Blogger Le vent fripon said...

Hi again, I'm afraid I didn't express myself very well in my last post, and would like to try again, after thinking about it a bit and reading LG’s post and website dedicated to the meaning of meaning.

I guess what I see as the problem with making a distinction between literal meaning and context-dependent meaning, is that language always appears in a context, so that there is no obviously correct way of determining the literal or context-independent meaning of a phrase. It is clear, from what I understand, that the phrase “The HIV virus does not cause AIDS” would be interpreted much differently in a court of law than it would be in a brothel in Thailand.

It seems to me that the idea that literal meaning exists is intuitive, that everybody senses that somehow “can you reach the salt?” has a basic meaning: and that it asks about the hearer’s ability. But how do we arrive at this common sense and how do we know it is correct?

4:52 PM

 
Blogger L>T said...

That reminds me of a teacher I had in second grade. If you asked, "Can I go to the bathroom?" (& I think every kid in the room did it at least once)
She would stare you down & say, "I don't know, can you, CAN you?"
Then make the poor little tyke struggle to figure out what was wrong. It still makes me shiver.

6:30 PM

 
Blogger Copernicus Now said...

Hi L_G,

If we were serious about dropping the word "cause" from our vocabularies, as you suggested, what might we replace it with?

One suggestion might be to replace it with the notion of being "blameworthy". For example:

"Smoking is blameworthy for lung cancer"


Consider how the following would sound:

"HIV is not blameworthy for AIDS"

"Gun ownership is not blameworthy for America's high murder rate."

I admit, it is a bit cumbersome. And it's not very nice to blame.

How do you suppose this would affect the courts? Presumably, you wouldn't have to prove that X was the cause of Y's death. You would only have to prove that X was blameworthy for Y's death.

In physics we wouldn't try to prove that gravitation caused object Z to accelerate. Instead, we would try to establish that gravitation was blameworthy for object Z's acceleration.

Life would be so much easier.

11:33 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

What I said about dropping "cause" from our vocabularies was somewhat tongue in cheek. The reality is that it is sometimes very, very difficult to defend statements like "A caused B." There are obviously some easy cases such as when the husband leaves a stove top burner on leading to a ruined pot, the wife can legitimately claim that it was the husband's fault. What annoys me are uses such as one reads on sports boards that this or that person or play caused a defeat. That is never a defensible claim since in, say, the average sports contest there are a multiplicity of plays, all of which play a role in the ultimate outcome. The claim that this or that side of a war "started" the war (another causal claim) may ignore provocations by the other side. Possibly the other side "started" the war by putting the invader in an untenable position.

l>t, you are posting a lot as if this is a chat room. I don't want you to stop posting but please try to limit yourself to substantive contributions such as your last one. Your teacher was an idiot imposing an interpretation on "can" and "may" that was never operative in English. It was a totally made up distinction. I don't know how old you are but I am 67 and we got the same treatment when I was a kid.

Le vent fripon, you are right that one cannot defend the claim that conventional or literal meaning is fully independent of context. However, the distinction I made in "The Meaning of Meaning" between conventional meaning and utterance (spoken or written or signed) significance requires that there be some aspect of meaning (conventional) that is invariant. But the elements of context relevant to conventional meaning are different from those that determine an utterance's significance in a particular context. Your claim that "`The HIV virus does not cause AIDS' would be interpreted much differently in a court of law than it would be in a brothel in Thailand." is true but what varies is the contextual significance. What changes are the standards of proof for the causal claim which in turn varies as to the different needs/goals of the speaker. In both cases, the conventional meaning of "cause" is the same -- it is the significance of the utterance that varies.

9:06 AM

 
Blogger Phil said...

It does strike me (as someone has suggested, but I don't want to scroll back up through it all to figure out who it was) that the context is important. That is, after all, why Aristotle identified four different types of causes.

In more modern vernacular, perhaps the question is whether the speaker intended to suggest that the 'cause' was sufficient or necessary (or both). While the statements you offered may be questionable, there are other uses of 'cause' which might be more concrete: "Putting the sharpened tip of a pencil against and piece of paper and moving it will cause a line to appear." Yes, we could philosophically debate it, but this is an instance where "common sense causality" doesn't see the distinctions that you are suggesting.

In sum, context is crucial.

Phil

11:41 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

But, L.Guy you blog 'causes' me to act up.
Seriously tho, point taken.
This post is making me think about why I am uncomfortable around preachers and lawyers. Like you said, 'It is the significance of the utterance.' & I know you can't base everything on truth or logic. i think of Pilate washing his hands and saying,"What is truth?"
I find it hard to reconcile what seems like contradiction to me.
I must clarify, I'm not uncomfortable around preachers & lawyers all the time.

12:13 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

Whoah! What happened? Wasn't there another post ahead of this one? Where'd it go?

9:05 AM

 

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