Temporal and Causal Asymmetry

  • W. H. Newton-Smith
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 157)


Healey has sought to improve our understanding of causation through a critical evaluation of two rival approaches, that of the physicalist and that of the conceptualist, with particular reference to the question of the direction of causation. The physicalist, as characterized by Healey, looks to our best physical theories to see what, if anything, in the physical world corresponds to causation. If nothing does he concludes that causal talk is illegitimate (Healey, p. 79). For Healey’s conceptualist no discovery in physics could have such exciting implication for the question of the status of causal talk. The conceptualist’s starting point is rather a hypothesis in philosophical anthropology to the effect that our causal concepts had their origin in the primitive human experience of producing changes in objects. That, I would have thought, is uncontentious. The more interesting claim is that while we have modified our primitive ancestor’s concept of causality, it retains to this day such a close connection with human agency that “causes are potential means by which humans could, at least ‘in principle’, bring about their effects” (Healey, p. 79). This anthropocentric aspect of causality means that “the direction of causal asymmetry is indexical with respect to our causal powers” (Healey, p. 98).


Actual World Causal Power Directed Causation Conceptualist Criterion Temporal Asymmetry 
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  1. 1.
    See for example G. -H. von wright, Explanation and Understanding Routledge and Kegan Paul, ( London, 1971 ), Ch. II.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    J. L. Mackie, The Cement of the Universe, Oxford University Press, (Oxford, 1974), Ch. 7.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    For a further discussion of closed time see my The Structure of Time Routledge and Kegan Paul, (London, 1980), Ch. III.Google Scholar

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© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1983

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  • W. H. Newton-Smith

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