agency, Critical Thinking & Ideas, philosophy, psychology
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Does smoking cause cancer? Philosophy says no.


Philosophers of the 19th and 20th century enjoyed tobacco.  That won’t be the evidence for the title’s claim!

Causation, a.k.a. cause & effect, is arguably the most important and fascinating notion in metaphysics. (Metaphysics is a branch of academic philosophy dealing with questions like, “how/where/why does stuff exist?” and “what does it mean to exist?”)

We use causation language  everyday.  But our normal usage of terms such as cause & effect are clumsy and inexact.  When we try to do philosophy or science without refining the notion of causation, are results are a big pile of cow dung. And even if you don’t plan on doing much philosophy, you should still care about refining your usage of cause & effect.

If you are confused about what causation is, then you fundamentally misunderstand the world.  Errors in perceiving causal connections in reality cause you to:

  • form unjustified beliefs
  • make false statements to yourself and others.  

That’s not be so bad, you say.  So what if I have false beliefs. But remember,

  • decisions are based on beliefs – you act because you believe
  • other people rely on your words – they expect them to be a solid foundation for their beliefs and, therefore, their actions.

So let’s clear this up.

Causal Notions appear in Everyday Speech

We imply causation in life all the time.  Here are some examples:

Smoking causes cancer.  She made him do it. I tripped because my shoelace was untied.  The lamp breaking was his faultIf it wasn’t for you, then I wouldn’t be in such a bad mood all the time.

All of these sentences make different kinds of statements about the origin of results. They are purporting to offer a causal explanation.

General and Specific Claims

In life, we talk about causation in order to make both general claims and specific claims.

“If it wasn’t for you, then I wouldn’t be in such a bad mood all the time,” is a general claim.

One person is saying that she’s in a bad mood all the time because she sometimes interacts with another person.  Notice that it doesn’t link a specific event to a specific event.  The connection is unclear and questionable.  Rather than expressing a tight connection, the content of the statement is merely a moral, pragmatic, and emotional communication:

“In some loose and unspecified way, your behaviour is affecting me and I can’t stop thinking about it,” or “you should take responsibility for my emotions,” or even “if you care about me, you’ll change your behaviour.”

You see, there are plenty of ways for someone to be in a great mood and having the greatest time of her life, even if her BFF is being a total b*****.  And even if the friend was an angel who always said and did the right thing, maybe she’s still be in a bad mood.  There is no clear link between a bad mood all the time and a friend’s occasional actions.  The general causal claim doesn’t mean much as a factual claim.

(And that’s fine, since language is a social tool with important uses beyond making logical statements.  Think about Spock – he’s purely a logical communicator. Is he an example of how and why we communicate?)

In philosophy, causation is about linking specific causes to specific events.  It is about pointing to a specific fact about the world and linking it to a specific outcome.

“I tripped because my shoelace was untied,” is a specific claim.

A specific event causally connected to another specific event.  If the shoelace wasn’t untied, then I surely would not have tripped.  There are, of course, much more complex scenarios, but let’s keep it simple and say that the connection here is tight.

The Distinction is a Big Deal

Maybe the distinction isn’t clear yet, or maybe you think it’s no big deal.

But if you want to think clearly,

if you want to make better decisions,

if you want to give good evidence,

and if you want to be convincing,

then it’s really important to have accurate beliefs and make accurate statements, especially about causation.

As you’ll see below, plenty of the “X causes Y” statements made in relationships, your workplace, media, in academia, and by social activists are general claims in disguise.  The words being used are classic cause & effect terminology, but the underlying statement is merely a moral, pragmatic (motivational), or emotional statement. When you can correctly evaluate causal claims, you’ll find yourself more skeptical of the beliefs that sexism causes the wage gap, humans cause global warming, and that smoking causes cancer.

Smoking Causes Cancer – False

Ever hear stories of people who smoke for 90 years and still die of old age, never developing cancer? It seems like smoking does not cause cancer for some people.

Notice that some people develop lung, throat, and mouth cancers without ever having smoked a cigarette?  Looks like there are a lot of unknown causes of these cancers.

And finally, do you realize that literally everyone already has cancerous cells in their body, including you and me?  Sounds like cancer cells are already there before anyone lights up his first cigarette.

The point is that if throat cancer develops in a smoker, you cannot self-righteously blame him because 1) the cancer could have developed as a result of his tea drinking habit (see here), or 2) that it was only because of the smoker’s genetics (the already present cancerous cells) that he developed cancer.  Although we like to lay blame, the link between the cause and effect in an individual case such as this is weak. The general claim means nothing with respect to the specific events.

Would you dare make the following causal claims:

  1. “That person has lung cancer, therefore she must have been a smoker,”
  2. “That person smokes, so she’ll definitely get cancer.”
  3. “Unless you smoke, you’ll never get cancer.”

Making the general claim that “smoking causes cancer,” is philosophically as false as making any of those three statements.  And I think we can come up with real life counter-examples for each one.  Can you see why it was difficult for the courts to find tobacco companies responsible?

Light ’em Up?

Just because smoking doesn’t strictly cause cancer in the way you probably thought that it did, should you keep your pack-a-day habit?  What should the claim “smoking causes cancer,” mean for us? It’s communicating something – but what?

Let’s return to general causal claims: the moral, pragmatic (motivational), and emotional content.

In daily conversations in which we use this type of construction, what we want to communicate when we say, “smoking causes cancer,” are the pragmatic messages that

“Do the cost/benefit analysis.  Smoking is not worth the risk, because you can’t possibly know if you have other contributory factors.”

“We don’t know what causes cancer exactly, but smoking seems to hasten the development of deadly cancer.  It might shorten your life!”

“Smoking can exacerbate or trigger other health issues.”

So, although smoking causes cancer is not strictly correct, it’s still a good to recognize it instead as a motivational statement rather than a statement of fact. The intention behind false marketing claims is good.

The Moral of the Story

Be careful when you use causation language.  Do you really mean to link a specific event to a specific outcome? Think about the connection between the cause and the effect.  If you don’t think it’s close enough, then why not re-phrase your statement to mean what you really want it to communicate?  You’ll think more clearly, use accurate information to make better decisions, be perceived as more credible, and get better results from your communication with others.

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. How do you provide causation reasons for your mistakes?
  2. Are you curious about causes?  For example, when someone does something (on purpose or by accident) that you don’t understand, do you tend to ask them why?
  3. Which of the following are your preferred causation words?  Because, due to, as a result of, consequently, therefore, fault, so, since, if-then…

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