Causality: a Rough Draft

Aristotle (384-322 BC), who got us talking about causality in the first place.

In an extended (and sometimes heated) discussion with colleagues at the Center for the Study of Digital Life, it was determined that one of the key things needed to advance in our work is a clear understanding of causality.  I have, consequently, been at work in attempting to provide a stripped-down, simplified explanation of what is a very complex topic.  This is the rough draft of my first attempt.  Any comments, feedback, suggestions, etc., are welcome (as long as they’re, y’know, polite).  The goal is to produce something clear and easily understood by those who are intelligent but not specialists in philosophy.


Here goes:

1. Causality

It is a uniquely-human trait that, faced with an object, event, occurrence, or anything at all that we have cognitively grasped, we can ask “Why…?”  That question, “why”, initiates a line of questioning for which the answer, whatever it might be, is a cause.  When we ask, for instance, “why is it red?” there can be a multitude of answers: because she wanted to paint it red; because red is associated with the act of stopping; because the oscillation of the wavelengths of the light reflecting off of it are somewhere between, roughly, 620-750nm; because the internal molecular constitution of the surface is disposed to reflect light at those wavelengths, etc., etc.  Each of these–the woman’s action and desire, the intent of conveying a command to stop, the wavelengths or the molecular antecedent to the wavelengths’ determination–is a different kind of cause.

First, we will explain the general notion of cause.  Second, we will classify each kind in turn.

1.1. General notion of cause

A “cause” is that which makes something to be.  This simple statement hides great complexity, for something can “be” in many ways: as a reality, as possibility, as a goal, and so on.  Nevertheless, the tendency in hearing the word “cause” is to think of one event, preceding a second event in time, that produces the second event by its acts.  This tendency not only narrows our perspective on causation, but fundamentally mistakes the nature of a cause, for it restricts “cause” to something entirely other than the locus of the effect.

If a cause is anything which makes something to be, then all causation occurs in that something, i.e., all causation occurs where the effect is manifested.  The cue ball is not the cause of the eight ball moving; the cue ball hitting the eight ball is the cause, an action which occurs in the eight ball, and which can only occur because of the eight ball already existing with determinate properties.  Given a different set of properties (e.g., if it were made of lead instead of plastic/resin composites), it probably would not move much, if at all.  This does not mean that the cue ball has no involvement in the causal process; on the contrary, it is really related to the eight ball, and its own properties–weight, velocity, spin–partially determine what sort of effect it will have when it hits.

What makes something–an item, an event, an action, etc.–what makes something a cause is the actuality of its relation to the effect.  Until the cue ball hits the eight ball its relation to it as cause to effect is only potential and therefore it is not a cause of any effect in that eight ball.  A consequence of this is that the cause-effect relationship is simultaneous.  One thing is a cause of another only so long as its effect is continuing.  So long as the eight ball continues moving after being hit, the cue ball is the cause of that motion.  If, for instance, the eight ball is hit lightly, moving only a short distance and stopping, the cue ball is still a cause of the eight ball “being there,” where it stopped.

But it is a mistake with profound consequences to think that this kind of relation (between Thing Z and Thing Y in Event Alpha) is the only kind of cause.  There are necessarily other factors at play in each Thing and each Event  beyond the action of Z on Y.

1.2. Causal taxonomy

The most basic division of causality is between external and internal causation.  An external causation occurs when the party responsible for the effect is outside the locus of the effect–for instance, the cue ball which hits the eight ball.  Internal causation occurs, naturally, when the party responsible for the effect is within the locus of the effect–as the properties of the eight ball which allow it to move when hit by the cue ball.  External causation subdivides into four categories, and internal causation into three:

External causation:

  1. Efficient or agent causation;
  2. Exemplar or ideal causation;
  3. Objective or specifying causation;
  4. Final or system-purpose causation.

Internal causation:

  1. Formal or structural causation;
  2. Material or potential causation;
  3. Final or individual-purpose causation.

I will explain these one at a time.


1.2.1. Efficient or agent causation

This is the kind of causation we ascribe to the cue ball.  Note, however, that the cue ball, as well as the pool cue, are themselves a subdivision of efficient causation: that is, they are instruments of efficient causation.  Instruments effect causation on behalf of an agent.  Hammers, screwdrivers, drumsticks, keyboards, gas pedals–there are countless examples of instruments of efficient causation which we employ on a daily basis.  Anything which is itself used to bring about the effect in some other can be seen as such an instrument.  Whatever does the using is the source of the properly efficient causation–the billiards player, the handyman, the musician, the typist, the driver, etc.

Both instruments and agents are involved in efficient causation because they are responsible for the actual existence of the effect: that is, they do not determine what the effect is, but that it is at all.

1.2.2. Exemplar or ideal causation

Exemplar or ideal causation exists in a mind.  It is the way an artist conceives of the project, or an architect of the blueprint.  All planning takes this form.  Simply conceiving of the plan, however, does not make it causal; exemplars or ideals become causal when they direct or shape the actions taken in attempt to realize the plan in actuality.  So long as the plan is being enacted, exemplar causation is occurring.  Insofar as it conforms to the exemplar, the building under construction, and once constructed, is an effect of the exemplar.

Additionally, such causation is considered a kind of formal causation, because it contributes to the effect of what its effect is.

1.2.3. Objective or specifying causation

Objective or specifying causation exists in the object of a relation.  As explained in the introduction, what makes an object is its relation to a subject.  Objective causation is the way in which an object determines the subject as related to the object as this rather than as that.  Therefore, it is also called specifying causation: a growling dog, for instance, specifies the dog as hostile to its audience, while a wagging tail specifies it as positively-disposed to its audience.  This  is the kind of causation whereby a thing shows itself as some “what” to a cognitive being.  Consequently, it is also considered a kind of formal causation, in that its effect is a cognition of what.

Very important, however, is recognizing that a thing may cause a specification which is not truly representative of the reality itself.  All lies and deception rely upon the possibility of objective causation to specify falsely.

1.2.4. Final or system-purpose causation

Final causation is the purpose, the reason why, some effect occurs.  This kind of causation can occur independently of any of the individual involved; in such a case, the purpose belongs to the system in which the individuals are involved.  The purpose of a military’s existence, for instance, is to protect a country or region, or to serve in aggressive action.  The purpose of the individual soldiers might be different.  Without the system-purpose (which may have started with an individual but which comes to persist outside of that individual), the military would never have come into existence in the first place.  The system-purpose, therefore, causally precedes exemplar and efficient causation.

Incidentally, this kind of causation is also exhibited in sub-human activity, as in locust swarm behaviors or bacterial quorum signaling.  Primarily, however, we encounter it in our own lives in cultural or societal behaviors, wherever a multitude of individuals participate in a common or coordinated activity for a purpose which does not belong to any of the individuals themselves.  That is, individuals might share that purpose, but that individual’s purpose is not responsible for the common or coordinated activity of the whole group.


1.2.5. Formal or structural causation

All of the previous means of causation exist outside of the locus of effect and therefore themselves come into existence before the causal interaction.  Here, however, we encounter something which has its own existence coextensively with the effect of its causation: the internal formal or structural causation.  This is the thing as it specifically exists, as this rather than that.  We often denote structural causation with the use of adjectives: it is spherical, rectangular; hard, soft; she is intelligent, he is slow.  But structural causation extends beyond denoting the properties possessed by things, and comprises also the very nature of the things themselves: James is a human, Morley is a dog, Whisper is a horse.

It is through structural causation that a thing is given its basic organizing principle, such that parts of that thing can be replaced and it remains the same thing–as the replacement of the cells in our body does not change what it is, because their replacement does not change the form of our being, so long as they do not interrupt the ability to perform the actions towards which the structural causation is ordered.

All internal causation is intimately related.

1.2.6. Material or potential causation

The tendency in hearing the word “material” is to think of the “stuff” out of which something is made: the chair is wooden, the saw is iron, the fabric is cotton.  This tendency follows naturally inasmuch as our thinking is always in terms of forms.  What is meant by material causation, however, is not the what giving structure to a thing, but rather the ways in which a thing is disposed to be otherwise than it currently is.  Cotton is itself a structural causation which is poorly-disposed to be made into a saw, while iron is better-disposed.  In other words, material causation is a thing’s potential to be affected by attempts to introduce a new structural causation.

All things in the sensibly observable or perceptible universe exist with their own material causation; even if not being actually effected at a given moment, that causation persists, inasmuch as the potential to be otherwise persists.  Knowledge of a thing’s structural causation and its material causation often go hand-in-hand.  Maple wood, for a simple example, is a very hard wood and therefore difficult to saw.  In a more complex example, someone with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is poorly disposed to remember dates and times for appointments.

1.2.7. Final or individual-purpose causation

Unlike system-purpose causation, internal final causation–or individual-purpose causation–belongs strictly to the individual in which it is found.  It is the purpose or goal which motivates the actions and behaviors of the individual.  Much like material causation, individual-purpose causation is always present; even if the individual is not actively pursuing its individual goals, at least some of those goals are at work upon the individual.  Individual-purpose does not need to be consciously recognized in order for it to produce an effect.  Plants, for instance, are all under the affect of individual-purpose causation without having any awareness of it: they grow, seek nutrients, and adapt to their physical surroundings not simply because of a concatenation of prior events, but because their internal structure is ordered to seek reproductive possibilities.

Internal final causation effects every living being.  With increasing degrees of cognitive awareness comes increasing degrees of complexification in the pursuit of internal individual purpose; that is, we may undergo a multitude of individual-purpose causations, simultaneously and perhaps even exclusively of one another.  Every individual-purpose causation requires the existence of an internal structural causation as its corollary.  Put in simple language: a thing’s what is necessarily related to its why, and vice versa.

1.2.8. Relations of internal causation

The causation of a thing’s internal structure is intimately linked both to its materiality and to its individual purpose.  On the one hand, the kind of thing it is, the form it possesses, determines what kind of potential it has.  “Being maple” as opposed to “being cherry” is a difference of structural or internal formal causation from which follow differing material causations: maple being considerably harder than cherry and therefore each having different potentialities.

On the other hand, the structural causation at work in the thing itself exists in order to fulfill some purpose.  This purpose it serves to fulfill may be a system-purpose or an individual-purpose in a living being.  The structural properties of a living being, for instance, always serve its individual-purpose.  But, in an important reversal, the essential internal structural causation determines the overall individual-purpose of a living being.  What a thing is not only determines the kinds of things that can be done to it, but the kinds of things it can itself do, and, moreover, the kinds of things that are fitting for it to do.

1.2.9. Comprehensive relations

Notably, however, both system-purpose causation and individual-purpose causation, while one resides outside the locus of effect and the other within it, involve objects which are outside of their effects.  That is, what undergoes individual-purpose causation is ordered to pursuit of something other than itself.  Individuals are not self-contained.  The operation of efficient causation belonging to a system may render a new structural causation which alters a being’s individual purpose; such that its purpose now conforms to that of the system–or perhaps, rebels against it.  The same is true of objective causation: without the object efficiently operating on the knower (in the precise regard that the knower is effected, at least), the object can nevertheless cause a new structural causation in the knower’s mind which in turn results in a new purpose for the individual, or a more specified purpose.

In short, causation is a highly complex interaction of antecedents and consequents, not all of which are chronologically-distinguished.


8 thoughts on “Causality: a Rough Draft

  1. I know that your blog is titled “semiotics“, so I think when I make this comment I’m already working uphill. Lol

    When we look at philosophy I think we have come to a point where we should see that a certain tradition or certain history has found its parameters. I think this in general could be called “the human being“ but I think in a more particular sense we could call this the region of “meaning“. When we begin to discuss causality and we see semiotics and meaning as in Hair and Lee and inextricably part of the human condition then we have already collapsed causality Eugen when we begin to discuss causality and we see semiotics and meaning as in heron Lee and inextricably part of the human condition then we have already collapsed causality Into whatever moment of discourse in which we begin the discussion. So any fact I would imagine that your discussion has to be the question of “how do we situate causality in this particular moment”, which is to say that we are going to begin the discussion at the moment of this phrase and not ask into what caused this moment in which we are discussing causality. When we identify with the common human being, as a category that transcends all other categories in a foundational category that we call human, or meaning or thought or any of these ethically coordinated terms, we are always going to get access, we are always going to get more things to discuss and relative opinions and we are going to reinstate the nobility of the human condition.

    Great. Nothing wrong with that we are human after all. But it does tend to negate any possibility that might arise outside of the human being, for example a way to get out what causality might actually be.

    I think a more significant contribution in the discussion of causality is to draw a certain line, to make a certain partition in what we are allowed to discuss anymore. And I mean this in the sense that let’s just say and believe that the definition I just gave above is true: that the discussion of causality really only involves the condition of discourse at which the discussion began, and never considers the condition of cars which brought forth that particular discussion about causality.

    Be intact meaningful and traditional human being would say that there is a certain circularity that we can never get out of in that kind of definition and so we should just go with that circulates early and stay in the moment and continue to discuss things as they are having a significant for our present circumstance.

    OK. So what does that really mean?

    If we look at it it’s very possible that we have come to find the condition that no longer needs to reroute it self into a human circularity semantics. If we step back and find that definition as a true thing that can no longer be argued against or for or re-discussed or resituate it or anything because all of those reappropriation of the meaning I really just instituting that same aspect in different forms and calling those different forms “different“ or “new“.

    So I suggest that it is by this kind of reasoning that we no longer need to condition ourselves with any further discussions of what causality might mean for a particular moment. It seems to me that those types of discussions will inevitably fall into a certain category, or certain type of view, we’re particular people want to talk and continue to talk about a particular type humanity that is somehow special in this universe, “of ours” .

    This topic of. Causality interests me.

    So any particular type of matter that I just outlined it seems to me that no longer am I concerned or worried about what the semantics or what the meaning of causality may be for a particular time in the continuum of tradition and usual history.
    In fact it is by realizing the parameters of causality that I am able to say no :it’s no longer about relative meaning. Now we can get on to an actual science of being human. Once we can admit that there is nothing really going on in my brain or thinking or something that has some sort of essential connection to the rest of the universe where by I find myself separate from it to be able to discern some sort of lineage of causality and effect, Then I might be able to have a better purchase on what we could call the live just sticks of causality rather than the meaning of causality as if the discussions of the meaning of causality are actually having anything to do with cause in itself.

    So that may have been long winded but really I think we have to admit certain things and if we don’t admit certain things then we kind of continue on in the certain way of denying that it’s already been discussed and/or orienting our thoughts towards teaching people that are less educated or knowledgable of the situation. And this is fine; we need this it is indeed a human effort.

    But it seems to me that if we are going to get serious about certain topics and serious about what is actually occurring in the world, we might have to just draw some lines and say that certain types of considerations fall into more of a “priming“ aspect of knowledge, and then that there actually more “applied “aspects of knowing.

    OK I’ll shut up now. Lol.


  2. … oh. And I would say that a logistics of causality has to do with how causality is being established. And this is to use the word “how“ in the sense of not what meaningful structures have been placed in such a way to produce a subsequent meaning that might or might not suggest a meeting that was before the meeting (etc). But “how“ in the sense of how gas is quickly heated and it’s expensive gases quickly compressed to allow for the functioning of the internal combustion engine. If we are going to get to a discussion of where and how the human being exist in the universe then we have to stop looking at ourselves as a special Lee divinely induced and inspired creature and begin to look at ourselves as a functioning object of universal stature.


    1. Thanks for this. I’ve been struggling for some time with trying to find a clear way of explaining formal causality. That is, after all, the goal here: to indicate for a non-philosopher audience what “formal causation” is doing. On one hand, it very much is doing something “structural”, even though it is not reducible to a “structure”, like the frame of a house or the skeleton of a body.

      I’ve played around with metaphors (which is what “structure” is, after all, in this case) like the parenchyma of a plant leaf, but that seems little better (except that it seems more “continuous” with the “flesh” of the stroma, and more “functionally”-indicative) and certainly not a lot clearer, since adding phytobiology to the picture seldom clarifies things…

      I’m open to any suggestions.


      1. Going back to Oderberg, in his book Real Essentialism he gives a detailed definition of substantial form. Here is the link:

        It seems that, pedagogically, instead of directly confronting form in general, he starts out with the more specific concept of substantial form – and this allows him to begin the discussion with a more specific, concrete discussion of substantial form, rather than an abstract discussion of form in general.


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