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Topics in Metaphysics


Leuenberger S.

Course director


Causation and Laws of Nature

Causation is pivotal in philosophy, and tends to be invoked in debates about existence, knowledge, freedom, individuation, responsibility, the direction of time, the mind-body problem, and many more. Moreover, causation is important outside philosophy too, in disciplines such as economics and psychology, and applied fields such as law, medicine, and engineering. What is causation, then? In its first part, this course will provide an introduction to an account of causation that has been particularly influential in philosophy, and serves as a useful point of reference in the discussion of subsequent work: David Lewis’ counterfactual theory. We will sketch Lewis’ neo-Humean metaphysics: how he explains causation in terms of counterfactuals; counterfactuals in terms of laws of nature; and laws of nature in terms of the “mosaic” of fundamental facts. Along the way, we will discuss problem cases for the theory, as well as objections from an anti-Humean perspective, which takes causation and laws of nature to be more metaphysically robust.

In the second part of the course, we will consider a few more recent topics in the study of causation, such as contextualism, contrastivism, absence causation, normativity, and the structural equations framework. The treatment of each issue will have to be relatively brief, but should put students in a position to decide about what they wish to explore in more depth in their presentation and/or essay.

Learning methods Classes will be a mix of lectures (with accompanying notes provided by the instructor), student presentations, and class discussions.

Those students who wish to do preparatory reading may start with one or more of the three texts listed below. The first one, by Pearl, is aimed at a larger audience, and a fairly easy read. It motivates the study of causal inference using a certain theoretical framework. The second and third text are more dense and will take more time to read. The second, by Lewis, is a classic which has inspired a large research tradition, and is still a key point of reference. The third text, by Gallow, is a recent survey article, drawing a variety of useful distinctions.

  • Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie, Introduction to the The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect, Penguin, 2019.
  • David Lewis, “Causation”, The Journal of Philosophy 70 (1973): 556–567. Reprinted in Lewis’ Philosophical Papers, vol. II.
  • J. Dmitri Gallow, “The metaphysics of causation”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022 Edition).

More readings (by Tim Maudlin, Jonathan Schaffer, and Sarah McGrath, among others) will be made available during the course.



Teaching mode

In presence

Learning methods


Examination information