Causality

Causality is the process of making something happen. Often it denotes a necessary relationship between one event (called cause) and another event (called effect) which is the direct consequence of the first. This two event type of causality is known as accidental causality. Another variety, essential causality, has one event seen in two ways. Aristotle’s example of essential causality is a builder building a house. This single event can be analyzed into the builder building (cause) and the house being built (effect).

The philosophical treatment of causality extends over millennia. In the Western philosophical tradition, discussion stretches back at least to Aristotle, and the topic remains a staple in contemporary philosophy journals.

Though cause and effect are typically related to events, candidates include objects, processes, properties, variables, facts, and states of affairs; which of these make up the causal relata, and how best to characterize the relationship between them, remains under discussion.

According to Sowa (2000), up until the twentieth century, three assumptions described by Max Born in 1949 were dominant in the definition of causality:

  1. “Causality postulates that there are laws by which the occurrence of an entity B of a certain class depends on the occurrence of an entity A of another class, where the word entity means any physical object, phenomenon, situation, or event. A is called the cause, B the effect.
  2. “Antecedence postulates that the cause must be prior to, or at least simultaneous with, the effect.
  3. Contiguity postulates that cause and effect must be in spatial contact or connected by a chain of intermediate things in contact.” (Born, 1949, as cited in Sowa, 2000)

However, according to Sowa (2000), “relativity and quantum mechanics have forced physicists to abandon these assumptions as exact statements of what happens at the most fundamental levels, but they remain valid at the level of human experience.”

In the case of a mis-attribution of a cause to an effect, the event is known as questionable cause.

Western philosophy

Aristotle

In his Posterior Analytics and Metaphysics, Aristotle wrote, “All causes are beginnings…” , “… we have scientific knowledge when we know the cause…” , and “… to know a thing’s nature is to know the reason why it is…” This formulation set the guidelines for subsequent causal theories by specifying the number, nature, principles, elements, varieties, order of causes as well as the modes of causation. Aristotle’s account of the causes of things is a comprehensive model.

Aristotle’s theory enumerates the possible causes which fall into several wide groups, amounting to the ways the question “why” may be answered; namely, by reference to the material worked upon (as by an artisan) or what might be called the substratum; to the essence, i.e., the pattern, the form, or the structure by reference to which the “matter” or “substratum” is to be worked; to the primary moving agent of change or the agent and its action; and to the goal, the plan, the end, or the good that the figurative artisan intended to obtain. As a result, the major kinds of causes come under the following divisions:

  • The material cause is that “raw material” from which a thing is produced as from its parts, constituents, substratum, or materials. This rubric limits the explanation of cause to the parts (the factors, elements, constituents, ingredients) forming the whole (the system, structure, compound, complex, composite, or combination) (the part-whole causation).
  • The formal cause tells us what, by analogy to the plans of an artisan, a thing is intended and planned to be. Any thing is thought to be determined by its definition, form (mold), pattern, essence, whole, synthesis, or archetype. This analysis embraces the account of causes in terms of fundamental principles or general laws, as the intended whole (macrostructure) is the cause that explains the production of its parts (the whole-part causation).
  • The efficient cause is not the external entity from which the change or the ending of the change first starts. It identifies ‘what makes of what is made and what causes change of what is changed’ and so suggests all sorts of agents, nonliving or living, acting as the sources of change or movement or rest. Representing the current understanding of causality as the relation of cause and effect, this analysis covers the modern definitions of “cause” as either the agent, agency, particular causal events, or the relevant causal states of affairs.
  • The final cause is that for the sake of which a thing exists, or is done – including both purposeful and instrumental actions. The final cause, or telos, is the purpose, or end, that something is supposed to serve; or it is that from which, and that to which, the change is. This analysis also covers modern ideas of mental causation involving such psychological causes as volition, need, motivation, or motives; rational, irrational, ethical – all that gives purpose to behavior.

Additionally, things can be causes of one another, reciprocally causing each other, as hard work causes fitness, and vice versa – although not in the same way or by means of the same function: the one is as the beginning of change, the other is as its goal. (Thus Aristotle first suggested a reciprocal or circular causality – as a relation of mutual dependence, action, or influence of cause and effect.) Also; Aristotle indicated that the same thing can be the cause of contrary effects – as its presence and absence may result in different outcomes. In speaking thus he formulated what currently is ordinarily termed a “causal factor,” e.g., atmospheric pressure as it affects chemical or physical reactions.

Aristotle marked two modes of causation: proper (prior) causation and accidental (chance) causation. All causes, proper and incidental, can be spoken as potential or as actual, particular or generic. The same language refers to the effects of causes; so that generic effects assigned to generic causes, particular effects to particular causes, and operating causes to actual effects. It is also essential that ontological causality does not suggest the temporal relation of before and after – between the cause and the effect; that spontaneity (in nature) and chance (in the sphere of moral actions) are among the causes of effects belonging to the efficient causation, and that no incidental, spontaneous, or chance cause can be prior to a proper, real, or underlying cause per se.

All investigations of causality coming later in history will consist in imposing a favorite hierarchy on the order (priority) of causes; such as “final > efficient > material > formal” (Aquinas), or in restricting all causality to the material and efficient causes or, to the efficient causality (deterministic or chance), or just to regular sequences and correlations of natural phenomena (the natural sciences describing how things happen rather than asking why they happen)..

Causality, determinism, and existentialism

Causality has taken many journeys in the minds of human beings for over 3000 years. Determinism and existentialism are but a few of the manifestations of this journey.

The deterministic world-view is one in which the universe is no more than a chain of events following one after another according to the law of cause and effect. To hold this worldview, as an incompatibilist, there is no such thing as “free will“. However, compatibilists argue that determinism is compatible with, or even necessary for, free will.

Existentialists have suggested that people believe that while no meaning has been designed in the universe, we each can provide a meaning for ourselves.

Though philosophers have pointed out the difficulties in establishing theories of the validity of causal relations, there is yet the plausible example of causation afforded daily which is our own ability to be the cause of events. This concept of causation does not prevent seeing ourselves as moral agents.

Indian philosophy

See also: Karma

Theories of causality in Indian philosophy focus mainly on the relationship between cause and effect. The various philosophical schools (darsanas) provide different theories.

The doctrine of satkaryavada affirms that the effect inheres in the cause in some way. The effect is thus either a real or apparent modification of the cause.

The doctrine of asatkaryavada affirms that the effect does not inhere in the cause, but is a new arising.

The Buddha, and subsequent Buddhist thinkers such as Nagarjuna, rejected both, instead proposing a middle way.

See Nyaya for some details of the theory of causation in the Nyaya school.

Logic

Necessary and sufficient causes

A similar concept occurs in logic, for this see Necessary and sufficient conditions

Causes are often distinguished into two types: Necessary and sufficient.

Necessary causes:

If x is a necessary cause of y, then the presence of y necessarily implies the presence of x. The presence of x, however, does not imply that y will occur.

Sufficient causes:

If x is a sufficient cause of y, then the presence of x necessarily implies the presence of y. However, another cause z may alternatively cause y. Thus the presence of y does not imply the presence of x.

J. L. Mackie argues that usual talk of “cause,” in fact refers to INUS conditions (insufficient and non-redundant parts of unnecessary but sufficient causes). For example, a short circuit as a cause for a house burning down. Consider the collection of events: the short circuit, the proximity of flammable material, and the absence of firefighters. Together these are unnecessary but sufficient to the house’s destruction (since many other collections of events certainly could have destroyed the house). Within this collection, the short circuit is an insufficient but non-redundant part (since the short circuit by itself would not have caused the fire, but the fire would not have happened without it, everything else being equal). So, the short circuit is an INUS cause of the house burning down.

Causality contrasted with conditionals

Conditional statements are not statements of causality. An important distinction is that statements of causality require the antecedent to precede the consequent in time, whereas conditional statements do not require this temporal order. Confusion commonly arises since many different statements in English may be presented using “If …, then …” form (and, arguably, because this form is far more commonly used to make a statement of causality). The two types of statements are distinct, however.

For example, all of the following statements are true when interpreting “If …, then …” as the material conditional:

  1. If George Bush is president of the United States in 2004, then Germany is in Europe.
  2. If George Washington is president of the United States in 2004, then Germany is in Europe.
  3. If George Washington is president of the United States in 2004, then Germany is not in Europe.

The first is true since both the antecedent and the consequent are true. The second is true because the antecedent is false and the consequent is true. The third is true because both the antecedent and the consequent are false. These statements are trivial examples. Of course, although none of these statements expresses a causal connection between the antecedent and consequent, they are nonetheless all true because no statement has the combination of a true antecedent and false consequent. Logic requires only that truth not be deceptive.

The ordinary indicative conditional has somewhat more structure than the material conditional. For instance, although the first is the closest, none of the preceding three statements seems true as an ordinary indicative reading. But the sentence

  • If Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon did not write Macbeth, then someone else did.

intuitively seems to be true, even though there is no straightforward causal relation in this hypothetical situation between Shakespeare’s not writing Macbeth and someone else’s actually writing it.

Another sort of conditional, the counterfactual conditional, has a stronger connection with causality, yet even counterfactual statements are not all examples of causality. Consider the following two statements:

  1. If A were a triangle, then A would have three sides.
  2. If switch S were thrown, then bulb B would light.

In the first case, it would not be correct to say that A’s being a triangle caused it to have three sides, since the relationship between triangularity and three-sidedness is that of definition. The property of having three sides actually determines A’s state as a triangle. Nonetheless, even when interpreted counterfactually, the first statement is true.

A full grasp of the concept of conditionals is important to understanding the literature on causality. A crucial stumbling block is that conditionals in everyday English are usually loosely used to describe a general situation. For example, “If I drop my coffee, then my shoe gets wet” relates an infinite number of possible events. It is shorthand for “For any fact that would count as ‘dropping my coffee’, some fact that counts as ‘my shoe gets wet’ will be true”. This general statement will be strictly false if there is any circumstance where I drop my coffee and my shoe doesn’t get wet. However, an “If…, then…” statement in logic typically relates two specific events or facts — a specific coffee-dropping did or did not occur, and a specific shoe-wetting did or did not follow. Thus, with explicit events in mind, if I drop my coffee and wet my shoe, then it is true that “If I dropped my coffee, then I wet my shoe”, regardless of the fact that yesterday I dropped a coffee in the trash for the opposite effect –the conditional relates to specific facts. More counterintuitively, if I didn’t drop my coffee at all, then it is also true that “If I drop my coffee then I wet my shoe”, or “Dropping my coffee implies I wet my shoe”, regardless of whether I wet my shoe or not by any means. This usage would not be counterintuitive if it were not for the everyday usage. Briefly, “If X then Y” is equivalent to the first-order logic statement “A implies B” or “not A-and-not-B”, where A and B are predicates, but the more familiar usage of an “if A then B” statement would need to be written symbolically using a higher order logic using quantifiers (“for all” and “there exists”).

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