Cause and Effect: Not black and white, but read all over as if it were

Cause and effect–we all believe in it and think we know how it works, but when we stop to think about it, some inconsistencies suggest there’s a lot more to it. And yet who studies the actual workings of cause and effect? Researchers in the philosophy of science–not a specialization you’ve probably heard or thought much about.

Aristotle listed four kinds of causes to which he said we can responsibly attribute effects. Using the example of house building, and somewhat simplifying Aristotle’s terminology, we have these types of cause:

Material cause: The ingredients–for instance, the lumber.

Efficient cause: The work done to put the ingredients together–for instance, the sawing and hammering.

Formal cause: The overall structure, design, or recipe–for instance, the architect’s plan.

Final cause: The future purpose or goal–for instance, having shelter for the coming rainy season.

Nice tidy list and a good start, but how do these different kinds of causes relate to each other? How do we know they’re all for real? Do all effects have all four kinds of causes? Does everything have a final cause? Are there goals even for rocks? Does God have goals for rocks? If God has goals and we have different goals of our own, which goals prevail? If efficient cause (the immediate kind of A-bumps-into-B-and-displaces-it kind of cause and effect) moves things one way and God moves them another, which prevails?

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And as the philosopher Hume wondered, how do we know that an efficient cause is even real? People’s senses don’t take in a continuous stream of experience. Movies recorded at twenty-four frames per second appear continuous. Things could be happening at a faster rate that we wouldn’t even notice. So just because we see the cue ball move toward the eight ball and then see the eight ball move in the next visible frame, that doesn’t necessarily mean the cue ball caused it to move.

And what’s the deal with final cause? How can some future state like having shelter cause a present state like building a house? That kind of backward causality didn’t make sense to the philosopher Spinoza. Sure, you could say that the future state was in the carpenter’s vision of the house to be built, but how can some future state cause a present vision? Spinoza argued that science had no business relying on final cause.

And if there is no final cause, what’s left? Material and efficient cause seem the most reliable, but if everything is just billiard-ball causality as Spinoza suggested, then what makes the universe anything but a predetermined machine, with every effect unfolding automatically from every prior cause? Following Newton’s discovery of the laws of motion, the mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace noted that if we knew exactly where every atom is today then we could pinpoint exactly where every atom would be into the infinite future. There would be no free will, no choice really. Everything would be predestined by efficient cause.

Our everyday conventional notions about cause and effect have been affected by all of these questions and answers. From Hume we’ve acquired a certain skepticism about all causes, a recognition that our ability to know what causes what is limited. From Spinoza we’ve got a sense that final cause especially can’t be trusted, and that efficient cause is the most reliable.

But despite Spinoza’s strong case that final cause makes no sense, we still rely on it to explain a whole lot of things, even within the sciences, or rather within some sciences. Physics and chemistry and the other hard sciences steer completely clear of final cause. You never hear physicists say that gravity pulls so as to achieve some goal. Physicists would say that final cause has no place in explaining any behavior.

But just down the corridor from the physicists you’ll find psychologists and other behavioral scientists who do rely on final cause, even though in principle they agree with Spinoza that it doesn’t really make sense. And in between you’ve got the biologists, who are the most ambivalent about it. They talk about final cause all the time, speaking of this organ’s purposes and that creature’s goals, but then they talk about how it’s all just mechanics–there’s no God-given blueprint and no purpose to life overall. It’s just the product of material and efficient cause.

It’s this behavioral science ambivalence about final cause that’s most unsettled within us these days. Which are you, a purpose-driven life form or just a very fancy machine? If you’re purpose-driven, then we face Spinoza’s glaring accusation that we’re relying on a kind of cause that we have yet to explain. And if you’re just a very complex machine, we have to face up to Laplace’s argument that all behavior would then be completely predetermined.

All this may seem abstract, but really, it makes a big difference in your everyday practical, personal, emotional life. Think of how many times a day you use such words as “because,” “do,” “for,” “cause,” “influence,” or “make,” to name only a few. Think of how many times a day you wonder how to fix something, or why something is broken. Think of your most profound regret and your greatest hope. How would you begin to make sense of these if you didn’t understand cause and effect? And how well do you understand cause and effect, anyway?

Next week I’ll discuss the way cognitive scientists are now struggle with these issues when thinking about parallels and contrasts between your human mind and your complex electronic friend, the computer.

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