Explaining Causality

A reader asks about a previous post:

a) Per Hume and his defenders, we can’t really observe causation. All we can see is event A in spacetime, then event B in spacetime. We have no reason to posit that event A and event B are, say, chairs or dogs; we can stick with a sea of observed events, and claim that the world is “nothing more” but a huge set of random 4D events. While I can see that giving such an account restores formal causation, it doesn’t salvage efficient causation, and doesn’t even help final causation. How could you move there from our “normal” view?

b) You mention that the opinion “laws are observed patterns” is not a dominant view; though, even though I’d like to sit with the majority, I can’t go further than a). I can’t build an argument for this, and fail to see how Aristotle put his four causes correctly. I always end up gnawing on an objection, like “causation is only in the mind” or similar. Help?

It is not my view that the world is a huge set of random 4D events. This is perhaps the view of Atheism and the City, but it is a mistaken one. The blogger is not mistaken in thinking that there are problems with presentism, but they cannot be solved by adopting an eternalist view. Rather, these two positions constitute a Kantian dichotomy, and as usual, both positions are false. For now, however, I will leave this to the consideration of the reader. It is not necessary to establish this to respond to the questions above.

Consider the idea that “we can’t really observe causation.” As I noted here, it does not make sense to say that we cannot observe causation unless we already understand what causation is. If the word were meaningless to us, we would have no argument that we don’t observe it; it is only because we do understand the idea of causation that we can even suggest that it might be difficult to observe. And if we do have the idea, we got the idea from somewhere, and that could only have been… from observation, of course, since we don’t have anything else to get ideas from.

Let us untie the knot. I explained causality in general in this way:

“Cause” and “effect” simply signify that the cause is the origin of the effect, and that the effect is from the cause, together with the idea that when we understand the cause, we understand the explanation for the effect. Thus “cause” adds to “origin” a certain relationship with the understanding; this is why Aristotle says that we do not think we understand a thing until we know its cause, or “why” it is. We do not understand a thing until we know its explanation.

Note that there is something “in the mind” about causality. Saying to oneself, “Aha! So that’s why that happened!” is a mental event. And we can also see how it is possible to observe causality: we can observe that one thing is from another, i.e. that a ball breaks a window, and we can also observe that knowing this provides us a somewhat satisfactory answer to the question, “Why is the window broken?”, namely, “Because it was hit by a ball.”

Someone (e.g. Atheism and the City) might object that we also cannot observe one thing coming from another. We just observe the two things, and they are, as Hume says, “loose and separate.” Once again, however, we would have no idea of “from” unless we got it from observing things. In the same early post quoted above, I explained the idea of origin, i.e. that one thing is from another:

Something first is said to be the beginning, principle, or origin of the second, and the second is said to be from the first. This simply signifies the relationship already described in the last post, together with an emphasis on the fact that the first comes before the second by “consequence of being”, in the way described.

“The relationship already described in the last post” is that of before and after. In other words, wherever we have any kind of order at all, we have one thing from another. And we observe order, even when we simply see one thing after another, and thus we also observe things coming from other things.

What about efficient causality? If we adopt the explanation above, asserting the existence of efficient causality is nothing more or less than asserting that things sometimes make other things happen, like balls breaking windows, and that knowing about this is a way for us to understand the effects (e.g. broken windows.)

Similarly, denying the existence of efficient causality means either denying that anything ever makes anything else happen, or denying that knowing about this makes us understand anything, even in a minor way. Atheism and the City seems to want to deny that anything ever makes anything else happen:

Most importantly, my view technically is not that causality doesn’t exist, it’s that causality doesn’t exist in the way we typically think it does. That is, my view of causality is completely different from the general every day notion of causality most people have. The naive assumption one often gets when hearing my view is that I’m saying cause and effect relationships don’t exist at all, such that if you threw a brick at glass window it wouldn’t shatter, or if you jumped in front of a speeding train you wouldn’t get smashed to death by it. That’s not what my view says at all.

On my view of causality, if you threw a brick at a glass window it would shatter, if you jumped in front of a speeding train you’d be smashed to death by it. The difference between my view of causality vs the typical view is that on my view causes do not bring their effects into existence in the sense of true ontological becoming.

I am going to leave aside the discussion of “true ontological becoming,” because it is a distraction from the real issue. Does Atheism and the City deny that things ever make other things happen? It appears so, but consider that “things sometimes make other things happen” is just a more general description of the very same situations as descriptions like, “Balls sometimes break windows.” So if you want to deny that things make other things happen, you should also deny that balls break windows. Now our blogger perhaps wants to say, “I don’t deny that balls break windows in the everyday sense, but they don’t break them in a true ontological sense.” Again, I will simply point in the right direction here. Asserting the existence of efficient causes does not describe a supposedly “truly true” ontology; it is simply a more general description of a situation where balls sometimes break windows.

We can make a useful comparison here between understanding causality, and understanding desire and the good. The knowledge of desire begins with a fairly direct experience, that of feeling the desire, often even as physical sensation. In the same way, we have a direct experience of “understanding something,” namely the feeling of going, “Ah, got it! That’s why this is, this is how it is.” And just as we explain the fact of our desire by saying that the good is responsible for it, we explain the fact of our understanding by saying that the apprehension of causes is responsible. And just as being and good are convertible, so that goodness is not some extra “ontological” thing, so also cause and origin are convertible. But something has to have a certain relationship with us to be good for us; eating food is good for us while eating rocks is not. In a similar way, origins need to have a specific relationship with us in order to provide an understanding of causality, as I said in the post where these questions came up.

Does this mean that “causation is only in the mind”? Not really, any more than the analogous account implies that goodness is only in the mind. An aspect of goodness is in the mind, namely insofar as we distinguish it from being in general, but the thing itself is real, namely the very being of things. And likewise an aspect of causality is in the mind, namely the fact that it explains something to us, but the thing itself is real, namely the relationships of origin in things.

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14 thoughts on “Explaining Causality

  1. Thank you for this thoroughful answer.
    Still, I feel there are few “objections” to it, and you’ll be able to tell me what’s wrong with them.

    a) First, the sense of “finality”. In this view, whether presentist or eternalist, we’re able to ask the question “why” or “how”. Indeed : let’s take the “ball breaks window” option. In this view, we can see that the ball is breaking the window in such a way that, as you mentionned, can be seen as an efficient cause. Now, we can ask why : this will be answered by saying “well, the hardness of the ball considering the weakness of the glass are so that, if you throw the first towards the second, the glass will break”. But we can thus ask “well, why is the ball so hard and why is the glass so weak?”. We can reply “well, atomic configuration made so and so”. We can thus ask further, and we’ll reach into a series of explanations, until we reach a first cause of sorts, one which will have no “why” question. My question, therefore, is the following : doesn’t this make the first cause a brute fact? I mean, everything ends up having an explanation, pace the first cause, no?

    b) Second, the use of “ball breaks window”. This make sense in a substance view of the world, but I feel that it’s inefficient in a event view. Sure, we can say it’s a “handy description”, but it doesn’t make substances exist out of objects. In this stance, there is no active powers, just a Parmenidian view of the universe. And what’s the objection to “heh, it’s just the way it is, no reason?” (brute fact). “Sure, balls break windows, but this is only given our perspective. If we saw time in reverse, we’d say that balls mend windows, and nothing would prevent this ‘mending’ view to be correct”.

    c) Third, how do you escape the intended “fatalism” of eternalism? If things are the way they are, then it’s “fated” that you and I will meet on day X, because events of day X contains both our spacetime worms that day… but this doesn’t help seeing the *reason*. It’s simply another description of how things are. Right? And again, per 1°) or 2°), the “escape route” seems a brute fact, and nothing else.

    d) I feel that this problem is packed into a few different steps:
    (1) Perdurance.
    (2) B-Theory.
    (3) Counterfactual/Humean theory of causation.
    (4) Event Ontology.

    What are your thoughts? Thanks for your clarifications. 🙂

    Like

    • It looks like a common thread running through these questions is the idea that various aspects of our understanding of things are “just in our minds” and the “thing in itself” lacks that aspect and exists in a contrary manner. If you haven’t read it, read this post: https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/2018/01/25/thing-in-itself/

      And another useful explanation, from an outside source: http://praxeology.net/unblog03-03.htm#02

      Basically it is true we have *specific ways* of understanding the world that are precisely a question of *how beings like us understand the world.* It does not follow that the world *lacks* those aspects; rather, “Does the world have this aspect in itself?” is more or less a meaningless question. There is no such thing “having this aspect in itself,” and consequently there is also no such thing as “lacking this aspect in itself.”

      a) There are no brute facts unless the opposite could have been a sensible possibility. So the fact that something does not have an additional explanation, by itself, does not make a brute fact. St. Thomas describes God as “existence itself existing in itself,” and whatever you say about this in detail, it seems right to say that the first cause is something like “the nature of existence.” If this is true, then the first cause is not a brute fact, because “reality happened to lack the nature of existence” is not a sensible possibility.

      b) Again, your concern seems to be whether the normal way of speaking reflects how things really are. I think this is mostly a meaningless question (see the links above). Nonetheless we can ask in some way about how things really are, and theoretically we can answer the question (see https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/2018/05/18/nature-of-form/). In particular, consider the fact that “in our perspective” balls break windows. Our perspective is involved here, but it is not, in fact, merely a perspective. An observer that saw time in reverse is physically impossible; consider what would happen when that observer was affected by the objects, and what would happen when the objects were affected by the observer. So “an observer that saw time in reverse would say that balls mend windows” is like talking about the mathematical opinions of beings that happened to end up with 5 when they added 2 and 2. No such beings are possible, in each case, because 2 and 2 make 4, not 5, and balls break windows and do not mend them.

      c) Consider someone making an objection like this to theism: “Suppose God existed. What would he be? Obviously just a being, like everything else, since there is nothing else to be. So there couldn’t be anything special about God in any case. So even if God might exist, we should ignore him.” This is simplified and perhaps a caricature, but some atheists do occasionally make an argument along these lines. And in a sense, obviously, there is nothing wrong with the argument. What did you expect in the first place? Did you think God would be a non-being, just in order to be special? But it also does not establish any point that is useful for the atheist.

      In the same way, “Every correct description of the world is just a description of how things are,” is obviously correct, as far as it goes. What did you expect? Did you want correct descriptions of the world to be descriptions of how things are NOT?

      This does not exclude giving reasons. In particular we should understand the final cause in most general terms to be something like “the formal cause of an efficient cause”. That is, it is “why this efficient cause did what it did.” Now in some cases, like humans, that might be an explicitly intended end. In other cases it might take some other form: even logical necessity can be a final cause in this sense. E.g. “Why do people build cities with either even or odd numbers of buildings in them, instead of some other possibility?” “Because there are no other mathematical possibilities” is a final cause, even though not necessarily an explicitly intended end here, because it explains why the efficient cause does what it does.

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  2. okay
    “denying the existence of efficient causality means either denying that anything ever makes anything else happen, or denying that knowing about this makes us understand anything, even in a minor way” : why wouldnt anyone be able to deny this then?

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    • I’m not sure what you intend by the question, exactly.

      Saying that nothing ever makes anything else happen, in this context, means e.g. balls never break windows, you never set an alarm to wake yourself in the morning, and so on. Sure, you can say this if you want, but if so you’re being silly.

      Saying that this doesn’t make us understand anything, in a similar way, means that you don’t know why anything happens, ever, nor why you do anything. So for example you have no idea why you buy things in stores. Sure, you are physically able to make this assertion, but you’re just being silly.

      Like

      • no its not being silly
        you say that
        Saying that nothing ever makes anything else happen, in this context, means e.g. balls never break windows, you never set an alarm to wake yourself in the morning, and so on.
        but its what the correct view of the world says eg you have for example a bunch of atoms making up the ball at t-1 and a bunch of atoms making the glass and then at t for reference you have a different configuratino for the glass but the same for the ball but there is no need to bring in any impact

        i dont see why you said athiesm in the city is wrong
        he says that their is no flow of time and no actions sto see
        and this is clearly easy to understand for we can only see events not things or actinos

        and then you say
        Saying that this doesn’t make us understand anything, in a similar way, means that you don’t know why anything happens, ever, nor why you do anything. So for example you have no idea why you buy things in stores.
        well thats the point of atheism and the City view
        once you know the position of all the atoms at all times in the world there is nothing else to see
        nothing to understand
        so there is nothing which make us understand things
        either we get it either we dont
        in such a block unniverse there is no time flow
        so your point on finalism or causality is moot
        same with God
        they dont exist

        i mean its easy to see
        once you have a block universe there are no reasons for why things are like they are
        they just are
        full stop
        so in your example its like a movie where my atoms are at a stroe at t and then somethings are in my basket and then they take the shape of my hand in my wallet and etc until the description is youre buying things
        goals and reasons are just brain illusions the world is physically entirely determined and thats all

        w

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          • what this is exactly the argument
            you dont want to reply why?

            according to your view the fact you went to the store is dependnet on you wanting to go there
            but the wanting to go there is dependant on your brain
            your brain is dependent on chemicals
            which are dependent on physics
            which are dependent on what? nothing brute fact

            so finding a reason is ultimately a bf

            now you can say that things happen in time sure
            but thats only our view
            and nothing makes time going forward a necessity

            so in the end eteranlism is true

            Like

            • Look. I said balls sometimes break windows. You said they don’t. I said, if balls don’t break windows, then people don’t write comments. There is not an “argument that I don’t want to reply to.” If you are right, there is no such thing as an argument, and you did not make any argument. If you are right, there is *nothing there* to reply to.

              I actually did reply to many of the things you said, and many of the replies are in this post or in other posts. You ignore all of that and talk as if I haven’t addressed it. In other words, you write like you haven’t read anything I wrote. You are not approaching this in a way that makes for any kind of discussion.

              One post that you should read first, if you want to consider any discussion: https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/2018/07/23/common-sense/

              In other words, trying to understand the world works by beginning with the everyday things that everyone knows, like the fact that people sometimes write comments, and the fact that balls break windows. If you deny these things, you are being silly, and you are not in any position to discuss anything.

              Second, see this: https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/evil-demon/

              Discussion is not a game that has rules like this: you win if you convince the other guy. The other guy has to concede the argument if he concedes the premises, but he is allowed to say to any point, “No, I disagree.” A game like that would be pretty pointless, and it would be impossible for the convincer to win, because the other guy can simply follow this rule: always say he disagrees. Then he will automatically win, because nothing can convince someone who always says, “No, I disagree.” I am not playing a game like that with you; I am trying to understand the world.

              You do not give any sign that you are trying to understand anything, but instead act like you are playing that game. You are referring to scientific models and so on, but those models are *nonsense* unless they explain a situation where it is simply true that balls break windows. Because people came up with those models to explain the results of experiments and so on, and for those experiments to mean *anything*, it has to be TRUE that “People did experiments.” You cannot tell me, “The experiments prove that it is false that experiments were done.” And in the same way, you cannot tell me that the experiments prove that balls do not break windows. Because very similar things were done (breaking things and so on) in the very process of the experiments, and if they were not, then no experiment happened.

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              • this is not what i said here

                im not trying to understand the world or to change your mind but im trying to state what is true
                andim puzzled by how you think therei s no problem with arguments like these

                lets take your example because youre putting thinsg that i didnt say

                for example i didnt say that arguments didnt exist
                nor did i say that people didnt exist

                all i said is like atheism in the cIty that there is no becoming
                eg you dont make an argument

                for example
                here
                what we are having is a discussion (even if you believe im not interested in it)
                but none of us made an argument
                i mean per eternalism both my arguments and yours exit in spacetime
                but none of us made them in a special way

                for example at t-1 the argument has no temporal part so it doesnt exist
                at t the argument has a temporal part so it exist
                at t+1 the argument is no longer present to us (for exmaple)

                the fact that you or i were there is purely coincidental
                and has no bearing on the argument

                i mean
                it looks like were making arguments
                but the arguments and the discussion already exist in spacetime
                its just our current experience which comes in contact with them

                let me try with another example
                you want to lift your arm
                so at t=0 your arm is down
                at t+1 you have a thought like ‘whatif i lifted my arm’
                at t+2 your arm rises
                but in no way your thought was the cause of anything nor you

                i mean
                we could imagine the opposite and it would be still valid

                and their is no reason it would be wrong
                because reality is just a relation between things
                and eternalism states this that all exist are timespaced points

                i hope im more clear

                Like

                • “For example I didn’t say that arguments didn’t exist nor did I say that people didn’t exist”

                  Let’s back up. You asked this question:

                  “Denying the existence of efficient causality means either denying that anything ever makes anything else happen, or denying that knowing about this makes us understand anything, even in a minor way” : Why wouldnt anyone be able to deny this then?”

                  I responded: “Saying that nothing ever makes anything else happen, in this context, means e.g. balls never break windows, you never set an alarm to wake yourself in the morning, and so on. Sure, you can say this if you want, but if so you’re being silly.”

                  You said: “No, it’s not being silly. You say that ‘Saying that nothing ever makes anything else happen, in this context, means e.g. balls never break windows, you never set an alarm to wake yourself in the morning, and so on.’ But its what the correct view of the world says.”

                  Any normal person would think you are saying that the correct view of the world says that balls never break windows and that you never set an alarm.

                  So a few questions before proceed:

                  Do balls ever break windows? Yes or no. No elaboration.
                  Do people sometimes set alarms that wake them up? Yes or no. No elaboration.
                  Do people sometimes write comments? Yes or no. No elaboration.

                  Once you have answered these questions with yes or no, we can proceed. Not before.

                  Like

                  • Do balls ever break windows? Yes or no. No elaboration.
                    no
                    Do people sometimes set alarms that wake them up? Yes or no. No elaboration.
                    no
                    Do people sometimes write comments? Yes or no. No elaboration.
                    no

                    but balls windows people alarm and comments exist
                    the problem with balls break windows is a subject
                    same with i wrote a comment
                    when i mean that i wrote a comment
                    it means that my temporal parts from t=0 to t++ where in a situation where it looked like
                    that i was writing a comment
                    but since the comment exist as a 4d object
                    then there is no need for anyone to bring it into existence

                    Like

                    • “Do people sometimes write comments? Yes or no. No elaboration.
                      no”

                      “same with i wrote a comment
                      when i mean that i wrote a comment
                      it means that my temporal parts from t=0 to t++ where in a situation where it looked like
                      that i was writing a comment
                      but since the comment exist as a 4d object
                      then there is no need for anyone to bring it into existence”

                      So you didn’t write a comment. It just looked like you did. Then there is no comment to reply to. It just looks like there is.

                      See here: https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/2018/06/03/skeptical-scenarios/

                      If you don’t write comments, people also do not do experiments. If people do not do experiments, science does not exist. If science does not exist, there is no reason for you to believe made up scientific theories.

                      There is nothing more to discuss here. If you do not accept statements of ordinary life, like “I wrote a comment,” your statements have nothing to do with reality, none of them are true, and there is nothing to discuss.

                      Like

                    • If you do not accept statements of ordinary life, like “I wrote a comment,” your statements have nothing to do with reality, none of them are true, and there is nothing to discuss.

                      how does this follow that none of my statements are true?
                      and how does the fact that experiments dont exist implies that?

                      things could just be true
                      like
                      at random

                      you make a model or a description of the world
                      or to be correct you have the luck to have the correct model or description
                      of the world coinciding with your experience

                      why this wouldnt be true?

                      Like

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