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Tallis in Wonderland

Causes As (Local) Oomph

Raymond Tallis hunts for the source of causation.

“The law of causation… is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm.”
Bertrand Russell, ‘On the Notion of Cause’, in Mysticism and Logic (1918)

It is easy to sympathise with those philosophers who have come to regard causes as, well, a lost cause. The venerable idea that everything that happens is caused to happen by other, distinct and separate, previous happenings – going right back to the First Cause, the mysterious Uncaused Cause (God or the Big Bang according to taste) that got happening to happen – has been under increasing attack for nearly quarter of a millennium. While it has fought back valiantly (mainly by re-defining itself), things are looking pretty bad for the idea of causation.

There are many reasons for this. ‘Cause’ is a rather slippery concept that serves a multitude of explanatory needs. Amongst them is the idea of material (as opposed to logical) necessity: the sense that how things happen to be is how they had to be. Material necessity has a complex and generally unhappy relationship with natural laws as they are usually conceived, not least because those laws betray their contingency in the seemingly arbitrary values of the fundamental constants built into them. A higher level law may seem to be an explanation of a lower level one (so-called ‘nomological subsumption’). At any given level of generality, however, we still have an appeal to a bare uniformity, i.e., the idea that ‘Things happen like this because they always happen like this’, or the Principle of Precedence, in accordance with which ‘Nature tends to repeat itself’. Causation is also woven into our idea of automatic mechanisms that ensure that what happens shall inevitably happen. The notion of a cause is also appealed to as that which has the power to bring things about. In short, behind the idea of causal efficacy is an explanatory promise in which powers and reasons, raw energy and intelligibility, converge.

At any rate, there are numerous untidy intuitions behind the notion of causes as explanations. To get to the bottom of this, we need to reflect on why we feel events require explanations, or, more generally, why happening needs something else to make it happen, and why this something else should be prior happenings – in the last analysis, immediately prior happenings. But before we do so, let us look at the vicissitudes of the idea of causation and the transformations it has undergone in response to them.

Hume and Kant

The most celebrated attack on the notion of events as causes and effects linked by a universal and necessary connection was launched by David Hume in his Enquiry into Human Understanding (1748):

“In reality, there is no part of matter that does ever, by its sensible qualities, discover any power or energy, or give us ground to imagine, that it could produce any thing, or be followed by any other object, which we could denominate its effect… It appears, then, that this idea of a necessary connexion among events arises from a number of similar instances which occur of constant conjunction of these events… But there is nothing in the number of instances… except only, that after a repetition of similar instances, the mind is carried by habit, upon the appearance of one event, to expect its usual attendant… This connexion, therefore, which we feel in the mind, this customary transition of the imagination from one object to its usual attendant, is the sentiment or impression, from which we form the idea of power or necessary connexion.” (p.64/p.75)

His argument was that causation was not a constitutive feature of the observed material world, but something in the mind of the observer. Immanuel Kant was stung into a radical response, arguing in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) that causation could not be found in experience precisely because it was a condition of experience. Like space and time, causation was necessary to deliver an experience of a unified world populated by material objects and operating in accordance with physical laws – the phenomenal world both of everyday experience and of science. Subjective perceptions can become objective knowledge only because of their “necessary unification” – the condition for there being experiences of an “empirically real” world accessible to all and everyone, and ultimately for a science that would reveal this world as a connected reality going under the name of Nature.

Probabilities, Counterfactuals & Manipulability

Kant’s interpretation of the world revealed to our experiences has proved deeply unattractive to many philosophers, particularly in the English-speaking world. Other ways of responding to Hume have been sought, and there has been a good deal of work in recent decades.

Thinkers inspired by advances in natural science, particularly physics, have argued that causes are passé. At the macroscopic level, equations and laws, the staple of science, do not appeal to causes. For example, Newton’s Second Law of Motion, f = ma (force = mass times acceleration), expresses a mathematical relationship between quantities, not a causal relationship. And at the sub-atomic level, randomness, ensuring the same general spread of results over time but not guaranteeing individual outcomes, seems to rule.

However, this has seemed unsatisfactory because it appears to give up on any attempt at explanation: stuff happens because stuff happens. And so others have tried to rescue causes by re-defining them.

Picking up on ideas from Hume and John Stuart Mill, the American philosopher David Lewis put forward the notion of causes as counterfactuals. His theory has been developed with great sophistication, but at its heart is a very simple idea: event A is to be identified as the cause of event B if it is true that if A had not happened, B would not have happened. A cause is something that makes a salient difference to what happens.

There are many problems with the characterisation of causes as counterfactuals. For example, it offers no basis for distinguishing between the cause of an event and the conditions that have to be in place in order for causes to operate. Most importantly, it is rather negative: it does not capture the sense of a cause as something that brings about an event. Causes have lost their oomph.

This is perhaps why an alternative theory, that of causation as manipulability, has recently attracted so much attention. It situates our causal sense within our ability to make, or prevent, events from occurring, to bring things about, to make happenings happen. So we are allowed to think of A as the cause of B if an agent could bring about the occurrence of B, or at least increase its probability of occurring, by bringing about the occurrence of A. Causes are, as it were, ‘handles’. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem right, because our standard understanding of causation extends beyond the scope of agency. There is nothing odd in talking about causal processes, such the influence of gravity on the tides, that take place independently of any actual or (as in the case of events occurring in the universe before human life emerged) possible human actions. Manipulability theories seem too anthropocentric.

While there have been valiant and ingenious attempts to rescue both counterfactual and manipulability theories of causation, few philosophers feel that they have been entirely successful, and many believe that the idea of cause is beyond rescue. Perhaps it is. But why did we need it in the first place?

The Cause of the Causal Sense

As Hume pointed out, at the heart of the idea of a cause is the notion of a necessary connection. In the literature on causation, the focus has been on the necessity rather than the connectedness. It is easy to see why: we want to find reason in material events that would otherwise seem unacceptably contingent. We want to believe that what happens happens because it must happen, rather than simply because it happens.

So much for necessity. But I want to switch attention from necessity to connection, and, more importantly, to the disconnection that the connection is invoked to repair. There is a need for connection because we have a description of a world that is broken up into discrete events. There are gaps to be crossed, and the idea of cause does this, restoring continuity to the world.

Billiard Balls
More paradigms shifted
Billiard Balls © No-w-ay in collaboration with H. Caps 2006

Consider a paradigm example of causation: one billiard ball bumping into another (Cause C) and causing the latter to move (Effect E). There is, in fact, no gap between C and E, and we could redescribe the two events as a single process, except for the fact that two distinct objects are involved, and, what is more, the outgoing effect is composed of more than one event (slowing of the first billiard ball, setting the second one in motion, producing a ‘click’ – and that’s just for starters). The separation between cause and effect seems more decisive where there is an evident temporal gap between them – in the case, for example, of the relationship between a flash of lightning (Cause C) and a peal of thunder (Effect E).

In all cases, however, the impression of a gap is false. There are no gaps in nature. A thunderstorm is a continuous process that encompasses flashes of lightning and claps of thunder. Objects that seem to interact at a distance do so through the intermediaries of forces and fields that transmit energy. This is most clearly evident in contemporary physics where, as philosopher of physics William Simpson recently put it to me, “everything seems delocalized and dissolves into the quantum field of some common substratum.” At any rate, physical reality is seamless and law-governed, (possibly) unfolding over time, not a chain or network of discrete events that have somehow to be connected by causal cement. Causes, far from being a constitutive stuff of the physical world, are things we postulate to re-connect that which has been teased apart.

Whence this teasing apart of the physical world? It is the consequence of the irruption of individual consciousnesses into the world. Conscious beings, especially self-conscious beings such as you and I, are centres of worlds opened up in a universe that in itself has no centres (or peripheries), nor items that are salient or irrelevant; no contrast between causes, conditions and backgrounds, nor causes and effects. Embodied subjects divide the world into localities, and items and events that are localised within those localities. This is the realm of spatio-temporally discrete items – including separate events that have to be cognitively glued together to relieve them of their individual responsibility for occurring; to relieve them of the burden of contingency.

Hume was correct in arguing that causation was not a constitutive property of mindless reality. And while Kant was right to accept the radical implications of this, he possibly inserted causation too deeply into the structure of coherent-world-revealing consciousness. After all, we observe many items that we do not regard as causally connected, and indeed differentiate between valid and invalid attributions of causation. Causal connections are not universal. Even so, we need to consider the view that links causation with the irruption of consciousness into the universe, giving birth to localities and separation and the consequent need for some kind of Oomph to jump the gap between seemingly distinct parts of a teased-out world.

If you are intrigued but not entirely convinced by this interpretation, you may wish to read a more detailed account in my Epimethean Imaginings (Acumen), out next month. If this piece causes you to buy the book, all is not lost for causation, after all.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2014

Raymond Tallis’s most recent books are Reflections of a Metaphysical Flaneur (Acumen), and (edited with Jacky Davis), NHS SOS (One World).

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