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.
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:
- Efficient or agent causation;
- Exemplar or ideal causation;
- Objective or specifying causation;
- Final or system-purpose causation.
- Formal or structural causation;
- Material or potential causation;
- 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.