Causation, grounding, and the Left's 'explanation' of ISIS

The scientific and philosophical methodological truth “correlation is not causation” has long made it into the mainstream, ordinary, non-academic people’s chitchat repertoire, thus establishing itself as a veritable intellectual cliché.

Having witnessed in recent times a number of opinion pieces by left-wing authors, arguing that ISIS’s (also known as the Islamic State) actions are to be explained based not on some theological basis that they subscribe to, but mainly by reference to the US foreign policy in the Middle East, it occurred to me that there is another truth of philosophical methodology, which, unfortunately, has not yet made it into the public consciousness: causation is not grounding!

This is not surprising, because the burgeoning philosophical literature on grounding is quite recent.  Though the first philosopher to discover grounding as a special, sui generis relation was Plato in the Euthyphro dialogue, it was Kit Fine (an analytic metaphysician at New York University), in his 1994 paper, “Essence and Modality,” who is responsible for the current heightened interest in the topic.

Consider some examples of grounding. First, take Plato’s own example in the Euthyphro dialogue.  The character Euthyphro, an alleged expert in theological matters, propounds the following as a definition of piety: an action is pious if, and only if, it is approved of all gods. Socrates’ brilliant response is to point out that this alleged definition does not answer the further, crucial question of whether an action is pious because all gods approve of it, or rather the gods approve of it because it is pious.  The word “because” here is not causal, but one that points to something more than mere causation, and that is the core idea behind positing a new, important metaphysical relation, called “grounding.”  So Socrates’ question can be reformulated as: is the piety of an action grounded in God’s approval of it, or is God’s approval of the piety of an action grounded in its being an intrinsically pious action?

Second, consider an example when we are interested in whether a certain concept applies to certain empirical facts. Suppose we are interested in whether a certain constellation of events could be called “a world war,” such as those that constituted World War I.  What caused those events is not important from the point of view of what we are after. World War I could have been cause by anything, but what we want to know is in virtue of what those events qualify as a world war.  What grounds world-war-hood?

Returning to the topic of ISIS, it is therefore hard not to get irritated, as a professional philosopher, when left-wing authors’ politically correct answer to some brilliant recent pieces on the theological grounding of ISIS’s behavior (such as Graeme Woods, “What ISIS Really Wants” and Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape”) is that we should rather explain or blame the ISIS phenomenon on American foreign policy.  Now, it might well be the case that this policy is a cause (maybe even a major cause) of ISIS’s existence, but that is completely irrelevant, completely beside the point: what authors like Woods or Callimachi have been interested in is the deeper intellectual question of what grounds ISIS’s existence, not the rather petty issue of what the causes of its emergence and rise are.

István Aranyosi is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bilkent University, Ankara. He is author of two books: The Peripheral Mind (Oxford University Press, 2013), and God, Mind, and Logical Space (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).