Cause and effect: metaphysical insights fire top guns' imagination

USAF learns from philosopher's understanding of unintended consequences. Matthew Reisz writes

February 24, 2011

Most philosophers pondering the nature of causality are left in peace to get on with it.

But in the case of Stephen Mumford, professor of metaphysics at the University of Nottingham, his esoteric area of expertise led to an unlikely invitation to take part in a workshop on the other side of the world - courtesy of the US Air Force.

The invitation stemmed from a research project he carried out with Rani Lill Anjum, now associate professor of philosophy at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, which attempted to "create a theory of causation for the real world".

This led to a forthcoming book, Getting Causes from Powers, which caught the eye of Kenneth Boff, a senior official in the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Professor Mumford said that the workshops run by USAF "are not about weapons systems or solving conflicts, but pure blue-skies thinking, for which there may be a pay-off 20 or 30 years down the line.

"(USAF) is very proud of its track record, including sponsorship of close to 60 researchers who went on to win Nobel prizes."

Last week, Professor Mumford and Professor Anjum were among 24 participants invited to the workshop in Brisbane, Australia, titled Understanding and Influencing the Causality of Change in Complex Socio-technical Systems. As well as participating in a series of small group meetings, the scholars were also required to submit papers, which will be published in a special issue of the journal Information Knowledge Systems Management.

So what could philosophers bring to a meeting of scientists and those working in far more policy-relevant disciplines?

Although he acknowledged that his work was fairly theoretical, Professor Mumford said that it can still prove helpful for people working in more practical areas who are concerned about "the unintended consequences of interventions in complex systems".

"Most theories of causality start with regularity," he explained, "what David Hume called 'constant conjuncture'. But the world doesn't work in that simple way.

"Striking a match doesn't always light it. Genes can dispose towards a trait without determining it. Two drugs that are good at lowering blood pressure can sometimes raise blood pressure if taken together."

The point, Professor Mumford said, is that looking at individual causal factors is only half the story: interventions that work in some circumstances can have the opposite effect in others.

"Engineers, economists and physicists all come across these problems. They want to know what it is about a complex system that allows them to happen," he said.

The same issues might apply when military power is used as a tool to promote political change in other countries.

Professor Mumford admitted he had limited experience of media or other outreach work, although he had been interviewed about another of his interests, the philosophy of sport. Yet he remained keen to reach out beyond professional philosophy.

"We hoped those in science and technology would understand what we are doing - although I was surprised when the military was interested," he said.

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