Review: The Why of Things, Peter Rabin

I love a taxonomy, particularly a philosophical taxonomy, although I am not fond of philosophy. One of my favorite bits of my high school philosophy class was when we talked about Aristotle’s ideas about the four different types of causes (material, efficient, formal, and telic/final). Peter Rabin incorporates and expands upon the Aristotelian model, pulling in ideas about causation from Galileo and Kant and other thinkers from history, to produce a complicated (but well-articulated) set of models for thinking about cause.

His thinking accounts for a wide variety of causes, from straightforward, yes/no (what he calls categorical) causes like A car accident caused this whiplash injury, to much more complex ideas of causation, such as the road’s design, the speed of the car, the material the road is made from, tires that have been worn down, and so forth. And Rabin is well aware of the manifold complexities of causation. Another person in another car on another day might experience many of the same causative factors without ending at the same outcome.

The taxonomy Rabin sets up was already interesting to me–seriously, y’all, I love taxonomies–but the really good bits happened when Rabin started talking case studies.

(Another fact: Case studies never don’t sound fascinating to me. Even if they aren’t really fascinating, they sound like they will be.)

Each of these case study chapters presents an aspect of Rabin’s causal model through the lens of a particular discipline. For instance, in a chapter on epidemiology, he talks about the various causal factors that contribute to epidemics, from something as categorically causal as infected water leading to cholera, to much more complex causative factors like the interactions of diet, environment, workplace, habits, etc. He then discusses the use of identifying causal factors in controlling a specific outbreak of a disease like cholera (which isn’t hard at all once you figure out where the contaminated water is) or smallpox (which is quite hard because it spreads really rapidly once it gets going); and in controlling these diseases globally (doable for smallpox, very challenging for cholera).

The first bunch of chapters focus on particular aspects of Rabin’s causal model, which is fascinating enough; but the part I loved best was chapter 11, which used case studies to illuminate the uses of the model as a whole. Let’s take his first example, the spread of HIV/AIDS:

There are four levels of causes here, roughly consonant with Aristotle’s casual models. The precipitating cause (the factor universally associated with the disease) is the HIV virus. A predisposing cause is the sharing of fluid (has to happen for the virus to be transmitted,  but requires the virus to be present in the first place). Programmatic causes (systemic factors that influence how things turn out) include things like inadequate medical precautions, lots of international plane travel, increasing social acceptance of high numbers of sexual partners, and slow response by public health officials. (Rabin does not say so because it is awful, but a purposive cause, to awful people, might be that God sent the virus to show gay folks they had to stop having so much sex all the time.)

Next up are the three kinds of logics by which we can gain knowledge of cause. Empirical logic leads you to search for causes that can be reproduced in a laboratory, and empathic logic is more like a narrative, the ways in which historical forces influenced the spread of and response to the epidemic in America. Ecclesiastic logic, which like purposive Rabin does not take up with regard to HIV/AIDs, would be tangled up with the belief that God sends punishments for sins.

Finally, and I suppose it was confusing that I’ve been saying model all along, there are three causal models to be used, the first of which is a categorical or yes/no sort of model: the HIV virus must be present, and there must be sharing of bodily fluids. A less linear set of causes–Rabin calls this model predisposing–are things like having multiple sex partners, drug use and needle sharing, a risk-taking personality, etc. The emergent model of cause encompasses multiple kinds of causes all coinciding at the exact same moment (existence of the virus plus air travel plus increased sexual freedom plus the government not being overly fussed about gay men dying) to produce the epidemic.

Of course I have not explained this with nearly the elegance and confidence that Rabin does, which is why you should read his book. I only tried to explain it a bit so that you would know what sort of taxonomy he has going on here. It’s a thoughtful book that steers clear of any dogmatic pronouncements or assigning of value to one understanding of cause over another, and for that alone it’s worth reading.

Note: I received this ebook from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

  • Eva

    Um I love taxonomies and case studies too! I wonder if I can convince my library to buy this! Probably not but I’ll give ILL a shot. 😉 I really want to revive my Netgalley account once I know I’m blogging regularly again: I miss the uni presses!

    On a somewhat related note…well, no not really, just that you said philosophy in your first paragraph, but have you read Moral Clarity?

    • Gin Jenny

      I LOVE THE UNI PRESSES. I have such a sickness. I cannot stop myself from obsessing over uni presses.

      I haven’t! What is it? Say on!

  • Oh case studies (or case histories works for me too). I love them! And I think causality is very intriguing. This sounds like the sort of book you have to read in daylight hours and concentrate over, but that’s no bad thing. My causality is definitely of the empathetic type, and could probably use a shake up.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes, it’s definitely one where you have to be paying attention to it. I was setting aside a couple of hours on successive Saturdays to give it my full attention, because it was interesting enough to be worth the time.

  • Prof. M