Monday, May 30, 2016

That nasty oxygen

We think of gasoline, lighter fluid and hydrogen as dangerous flammable substances (in the ordinary, not philosophical, sense). But in the ordinary course of things, when they burn, they do so because of oxygen. So it seems more reasonable to think of oxygen as the dangerous inflamer here. This is of course a very standard example in philosophy of causation: we don't normally think of oxygen as the cause of a fire, but we could just as well, except for pragmatic stuff. I just didn't realize until recently how great the example is. Having oxygen about is having a fire about to happen. Thinking about this also makes it clear just how precarious our existence is, dependent on such a highly dangerous chemical as it is.


Heath White said...

What is the philosophical sense of a "dangerous flammable substance"? (As opposed to the ordinary sense.)

Michael Gonzalez said...

I think the reason we don't ordinarily think of it this way is because oxygen serves a lot of purposes and is pervasive in a (normally) non-inflamed world. Indeed, the world could contain oxygen all over (as it does) and yet never have a flame, nor indeed any danger of a flame. It's only when those other substances -- which are not as pervasive and otherwise beneficial -- are present that danger of fire comes into play.

It would be like implicating the existence of breathable air or even technological advance in general as the cause of terrorist actions like 9/11. Sure, the 9/11 attacks couldn't have occurred without those things, but the relevant causal factors are things like weapons manufacture, religious ideology, history of national behaviors etc.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

In a totally safe world there would be no oxygen. Therefore there would be no possibility of a fire. Therefore, let's ban oxygen! Let's. get rid of it in our environment. We must stay safe. :-) :-)