Direct Causation: A New Approach to an Old Question

October, 2020


Causative constructions come in lexical and periphrastic variants, exemplified in English by Sam killed Lee and Sam caused Lee to die. While use of the former, the lexical causative, entails the truth of the latter, an entailment in the other direction does not hold. The source of this asymmetry is commonly ascribed to the lexical causative having an additional prerequisite of “direct causation", such that the causative relation holds between a contiguous cause and effect (Fodor 1970, Katz 1970). However, this explanation encounters both empirical and theoretical problems (Nelleman & van der Koot 2012). To explain the source of the directness inferences (as well as other longstanding puzzles), we propose a formal analysis based on the framework of Structural Equation Models (SEMs) (Pearl 2000) which provides the necessary background for licensing causal inferences. Specifically, we provide a formalization of a 'sufficient set of conditions' within a model and demonstrate its role in the selectional parameters of causative descriptions. We argue that “causal sufficiency” is not a property of singular conditions, but rather sets of conditions, which are individually necessary but only sufficient when taken together (a view originally motivated in the philosophical literature by Mackie 1965). We further introduce the notion of a “completion event” of a sufficient set, which is critical to explain the particular inferential profile of lexical causatives.

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