Twisted Tales: Causal Complexity and Cognitive Scientific Explanation

Andy Clark*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


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 tales 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 to 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 the 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 singled out factor is somehow doing the most real work. Where the amounts of causal influence are 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 Equality'. Avoiding these errors involves reminding ourselves of (1) the rich context-dependence of even standard, unproblematic uses of the notions of code, program and information content (all three make sense only relative to an assumed ecological backdrop) and (2) the difference between explaining why an event occurred and displaying the full workings of a complex causal system.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)79-99
Number of pages21
JournalMinds and Machines
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1998
Externally publishedYes


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