4 Other Things Being Equal

Appeal to ceteris paribus clauses is at once ubiquitous and dubious. It is nearly impossible to provide unhedged empirical generalizations that are both true and theoretically interesting. For the world is a complex place. When we study it, and try to formulate the laws that govern its operation, we always focus on certain factors while ignoring others. This practice of abstraction, or idealization, is essential to understanding. But it guarantees a loss of descriptive adequacy in our theoretical generalizations, making appeal to ceteris paribus (cp) clauses unavoidable. Still, suspicion of cp clauses is easily bred.

An honest generalization, one might think, is a bold conjecture that wears its falsification conditions on its sleeve: when someone claims that all Fs are Gs, her claim is false if some F is not G. From this perspective, a cp clause turns an honest generalization into something disreputable—an allegedly falsifiable claim that is somehow compatible with counterexamples. Faced with an F that is not G, one retreats to the claim that all Fs are Gs , other things being equal. This invites the thought that generalizations modified by a cp clause (and thus insulated from easy falsification) are vacuous. Put most starkly, one might charge that 'cp, all Fs are Gs' says merely that all Fs are Gs, except for those Fs that are not Gs.

I view this as a puzzle of the type described in the Introduction: we have strong reason to think that many laws hold only cp, yet it is hard to see how cp clauses can relax generalizations without trivializing them. So I devote much of this chapter to providing a sufficient condition for nonvacuity. With this proposal in place, I return to the sufficient condition for explanation offered at the end of Chapter 3 , and argue that it is not open to objections that plague traditional covering-law models.


1 the Need for Idealization 1

We look to science for good explanations. One important form of scientific explanation involves citing laws from which the explanandum can be

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Causing Actions
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Causing Actions iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1: Actions as Inner Causes 18
  • 2: Fregean Innocence 55
  • 3: From Explanation to Causation 89
  • 4: Other Things Being Equal 117
  • 5: Personal Dualism 147
  • 6: Modal Concerns 179
  • 7: Natural Causes 216
  • Appendix 246
  • References 260
  • Index 271
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