Causality in archaeological explanation.

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Citation: Salmon, W.C. (1982) Causality in archaeological explanation.. Theory and Explanation in Archaeology, edited by C. Renfrew, M. Rowlands and B. Seagraves. Academic Press, pp. 45-55. (RSS)
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Salmon discusses the conceptions of scientific explanation that behind the construction of explanation models, including deductive-nomological (D-N model), inductive-statistical (I-S model), and statistical-relevance model (S-R model), and addressed some problems which relates to such explanation in archaeology. He points out the conception could be divided into inferential and causal conception, which is the basic conceptions for D-N model and statistical explanation respectively. Salmon thinks that the inferential conception is based on inductive arguments that conclude highly probable in relation to the explanatory facts, which means only high probable result could be viewed as suitable explanatory condition. However, this approach overlooks the improbable events, which should be also explained. Later, the I-S model and the S-R model based on statistical explanation were proposed to solve this problem. But there are still some flaws in such explanations. For example, the I-S model imposes a high-probability requirement for events, while the S-R model has been criticized that it could not explain the causal considerations.

Therefore, Salmon proposed another approach, causal explanation, which combines the probabilistic concept from I-S model and the relations of statistical relevance from S-R model. This approach could be viewed as an extension of the S-R model, which stresses that causal conception requires a probabilistic concept of causality. He then used an archaeological artifact as an example to illustrate a satisfactory explanation will involve in complex causal processes and interactions which lead to artifacts in a given time and space. He thinks that by examining the causal processes and the complex causal mechanisms including positively relevant factors and negatively relevant factors, we are able to explain events which happen in prehistoric period.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

The causal explanation what Salmon proposed is really relevant to archeology, because when archaeologists explain events or phenomenon, they usually try to find the cause behinds them. I agree some viewpoints of Salmon, for example, he suggests that we also need to consider improbable events even they have low probabilities. I think this idea is suitable for archeology, because the preservation of archaeological artifacts depends on several conditions, which means sometimes artifacts were selected by natural condition, and we cannot exclude the possibilities of potential explanation just due to little evidence. We should consider all factors, compare and then make decisions. However, I feel Salmon overemphasizes the causality, and I think for archaeology, causal explanation is a part of a coherent story but not the main point.