Causation and Modality

Barnard (Columbia), Spring 2015


This course focuses on causation and modality. But what are causation and modality? Causation is easy to introduce: it’s about what it means to say that something causes something else. Modality might sound more obscure at first: yet it’s about familiar notions too, the notions of possibility and necessity. The goal of our seminar is to figure out how these notions connect to one another.

For centuries, philosophers have thought that there is a close relation between modality and causation. Here is why. In order to find out whether something causes something else, we often tend to consider what could possibly or necessarily happen if a given event were to happen, or not to happen. For instance, in order to predict whether an earthquake causes a building to fall down, we try to figure out what would or could happen if an earthquake were to occur. To many, this suggests that there is a close relation between notions such as possibility, necessity and causation. But what relation exactly?

The answer to this question remains extremely controversial today. We will look at some of the main answers, and consider to which extent they are worth pursuing. Some authors attempt at reducing causation to modality. Roughly, the idea is that causation is some sort of necessary connection between the cause of the effect. Other authors claim that we should in fact reverse the order of explanation: modality is to be reduced, in a sense we will explain, to causation. Yet others suggest that we should set aside any reductive attempt between these two sets of notions.

We’ll discuss each of these positions, and see whether we can make a clearer picture of the inter-play between causation and modality emerge. Along the way, we will also try and formulate our own original answer to the question of how to connect modality and causation.


Recommended Texts (On reserve in Butler Library)
- Collins, J. D., Hall E. J. and Paul L. A. eds. (2004). Causation and Counterfactuals, MIT Press.
- Hall, E. and Paul, L. A. (2013). Causation: A User’s Guide, OUP.

Course Requirements for Graduate Students (E, or graded, credit)

- Attendance of all seminar meetings.
- One 20-pages term paper (1.5 interline), due on May 9 (by 5pm; on Courseworks).

Course Requirements for Graduate Students (R credit)

- Attendance of all seminar meetings.

Course Requirements for Undergraduate Students (R credit)

- Attendance of all seminar meetings.
- Two 7-pages papers (1.5 interline) [respectively 1/2 of the final grade]; these are due, respectively, on March 11 at 5 pm, and on May 5 at 5 pm (on Courseworks).


Week-by-Week Plan

NB: all the readings will be made available via Courseworks and Google Drive.

Week 1 - Jan 26. Introduction and Motivation: Why Connect Modality and Causation?


  • Hall, E. (2006). ‘Philosophy of causation: blind alleys exposed; promising directions highlighted’, in Philosophy Compass, pp. 86-94.

  • Sider, T. (2003). ‘Reductive Theories of Modality’, in Michael J. Loux and Dean W. Zimmerman (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 180–208.



Unit I – Background


Week 2. Feb 2. Historical Background

Guest Speaker: Sarah Broadie (St Andrews University)

Key Readings

  • Plato’s Phaedo (selections).
  • Aristotle’s Metaphysics Theta 5.
  • David Hume's ‘Of the Idea of Necessary Connexion’ (section I iii 14 of the Treatise) [you may also look at Section VII of Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding.]

Optional Reading

  • Broadie, S. (2009). ‘The Ancient Greeks’, in The Oxford Handbook of Causation by Helen Beebee, Christopher Hitchcock, and Peter Menzies (eds.). [This piece is just great.]


Week 3. Feb 9. Modality and Language

Key Readings

  • Vintel, K. (2006). ‘Modality and Language’, in Borchert, D. M. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Philosophy – second edition, Detroit: MacMillan Reference USA.

  • Lewis, D. Counterfactuals, selections.

Optional Readings

  • Kratzer, A. (1991). ‘Modality’, in Semantics: An International Handbook of Contemporary Research. Berlin: de Gruyter, pp. 639-650.

  • Portner, M. (2008). Modality, selections.



Unit II – Reducing Causation to Modality

Week 4. Feb 16. The Standard Counterfactual Account (and Its Counterexamples)

Guest Speaker: John Collins (Columbia)

Key Readings

  • Lewis, D. (1973). ‘Causation’, in The Journal of Philosophy, pp. 556-567.

  • Lewis, D. (1986). ‘Postscripts to ‘Causation’’, published in his Philosophical Papers, Volume II, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 172-213.

Optional Readings

  • Collins, J. D., Hall E. J. and Paul L. A. (eds.) (2004). Causation and Counterfactuals, MIT Press, introduction. [Excellent piece; the whole book is also on reserve at Butler.]

  • Paul, L. and Hall, N. (2013). Causation, OUP, ch.s 1-2. [This piece is longish, but introductory and very accessible; good background reading.]


Week 5. Feb 23. A Sophisticated Counterfactual Account

Key Readings

  • Lewis, D. (2000). ‘Causation as influence’, in The Journal of Philosophy, pp. 182-197.

  • Schaffer, J. (2003). ‘Trumping Preemption’, in The Journal of Philosophy, pp. 165-181; reprinted in Collins et al. (eds.), Causation and Counterfactuals. [Fun fact: at some point Lewis called trumping 'the universal counterexample to counterfactual accounts of causation.]

Optional Reading

  • Yablo, S. (2004). 'Advertisement for a Sketch of an Outline of a Prototheory of Causation’, in Causation and Counterfactuals, pp. 119-137. [Towards a different counterfactual account.]


Week 6. March 2. Sufficiency Accounts -

Guest Speakers: Michael Strevens (NYU), Alex Kaiserman (Oxford)-

Key Readings

  • Mackie, J. L. (1980). The Cement of the Universe, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

  • Strevens, M. (2007). ‘Mackie Remixed’, in J. Keim Campbell, M. O’Rourke, and H. S. Silverstein (eds.), Causation and Explanation, Topics in Contemporary Philosophy, vol. 4, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Optional Reading

  • Kaiserman, A. (ms). ‘Normative Causation’.



Unit III. Reducing Modality to Causation


Week 7. March 9. The Case for Inverting the Order of Explanation

Key Readings

  • - Edgington, D. (2011). ‘Causation First: Why Causation is Prior to Counterfactuals’, in Understanding Counterfactuals, Understanding Causation: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology, Oxford: OUP, ch.12.

  • Kment, B. (2014). Modality and Explanatory Reasoning, OUP, Oxford, ch.1 (esp. pp.3-8), and ch.10 section 3.

Optional Readings

  • Vetter, B. (2011). ‘Recent Work: Modality Without Possible Worlds’, in Analysis, pp. 742-754.



Week 9. March 23. Boris Kment's Reduction of Modality to Causation (Or Rather: Ontic Explanation)

Guest Speaker: Boris Kment (Princeton)

Key Readings -

  • Kment, B. (2014). Modality and Explanatory Reasoning, OUP, selections.

Optional Reading

  • Kment, B. (2006). ‘Counterfactuals and the Analysis of Necessity’, in Philosophical Perspectives, pp. 237–302.

Week 10. March 30. Reducing Modality to Dispositions

Key Reading

  • Vetter, B. (2014). Dispositions and Possibility, Oxford: Oxford University Press, selections.

Optional Readings

  • Aimar, S. (ms). ‘Non-Standard Modals: Disposition Ascriptions’. -

  • Wang, J. (2014). ‘The Modal Limits of Dispositionalism’, in Noûs.



Unit IV. Alternatives to Full-Fledged Reductions


Week 11. April 6. Two Concepts of Causation: Ned Hall

Key Readings

  • Hall, E. (2004). ‘Two Concepts of Causation’, in Causation and Counterfactuals.

  • Strevens, M. (forthcoming) ‘Causality Reunified’, in Erkenntnis.

Optional Reading

  • Bader, R. (ms). ‘Dispositionality, Causality and Intrinsicality’.


Week 12. April 13. Reduction to a Third Factor: Maudlin

 Guest Speaker: Tim Maudlin (NYU)

Key Reading

  • Maudlin, T. (2004). ‘Causation, Counterfactuals and the Third Factor’, in Causation and Counterfactuals, pp. 419-443. [This paper suggests we should not reduce causation to modality; nor vice-versa; instead, it might preferable to partly reduce both counterfactuals hand causation to laws].

Optional Readings

  • Maudlin, T. (2007). ‘A Modest Proposal Concerning Laws, Counterfactuals, and Explanations’, in The Metaphysics Within Physics, Oxford: OUP, pp. 5–49. [It expands on the key reading]

  • Maudlin, T. (2007). ‘Why be Humeans?’, in The Metaphysics Within Physics, Oxford: OUP.

  • Schaffer, J. (2008). ‘Causation and laws of nature: Reductionism’, in Contemporary Debates in Metaphysics, pp. 82-107. [An attempt at reducing causation while meeting Maudlin’s challenges, among other things.]


Week 13. April 20. Connections Without Reductions? (Some) Interventionist Accounts

Key Readings

  • Woodward, J. (2003). Making Things Happen, Oxford: Oxford University Press, selections.

  • Briggs, R. (2012). ‘Interventionist Counterfactuals’, in Philosophical Studies, pp. 139- 166.

Optional Readings

  • Hiddleston, E. (2005). ‘A Causal Theory of Counterfactuals’, in Noûs.

  • Schaffer, J. (2004). ‘Counterfactuals, causal independence and conceptual circularity’, in Analysis, pp. 299-308.


Week 14. April 27. Mini-Conference! -

Speakers: you!

This week we’ll have a mini-conference. Each of you will present her or his own ideas about modality and causation. We will have a Q&A after each talk, and give feedback to the speaker. Talks can be used as a starting point for essays.