Twisted Tales: Causal Complexity and Cognitive Scientific Explanation
Recent work in biology and cognitive science depicts a variety of target phenomena as the products of a tangled web of causal influences. Such influences may include both internal and external factors, as well as complex patterns of reciprocal causal interaction. Such twisted ales are sometimes seen as a threat to explanatory strategies that invoke notions such as "inner programs", "genes for" and sometimes even "internal representations". But the threat, I shall argue, is more apparent than real. Complex causal influence, in and of itself, provides no good reason to reject these familiar explanatory notions. To believe otherwise, I suggest, is generally to commit (at least) one of two seductive errors. The first error is tot think that the general notion of a state x coding for an outcome y involves the state's constituting a full description of y. This is what I call the "myth of self-contained code". The second error is to think that the practice of treating certain factors as special (e.g., seeing genes as coding for outcomes in a way environmental factors do not) depends on the (often mistaken) belief that the singles out factor is somehow doing the most real work. Where the work load is evenly spread, it is assumed there can be no reason to treat one factor in a special way. This is what I term the "Myth of Explanatory Symmetry." Avoiding these errors involves reminding ourselves of 1) the context-dependence of even standard, unproblematic uses if the notions of code, program and information-content, and 2) the difference between explaining why an event occurred and displaying the full workings of a complex causal system.