Chapter 1. BASIC CAUSAL RELATIONS

1. Causation and volition

2. Causality and modality

3. Spontaneity

4. Relative vs. absolute contingency

1. Causation and volition

By the term Causality, we refer to the relation between a cause and an effect. Without attempting from the outset to define the causal relation, which we apparently all have some sort of insight into, we may nevertheless notionally distinguish two primary and radically different expressions of it, or genera, which we shall call Causation and Volition. The study of these matters may be labeled ‘aetiology’.

Causality is, note well, a relation of some sort between two or more individual things or kinds of things[1]. If two things are not related by causation or volition, they are said to be ‘not causally related’ – without intention to exclude the possibility that each might have one or the other causal relation to certain other things. The notion of Spontaneity, which refers to events thought to be uncaused by anything else, will be considered later.

‘Causation’ is the term that we shall apply to deterministic causality, which may be loosely described as the causal relation between ‘natural’ things, qualities or events, which ‘makes’ them, individually or collectively, behave with certain regularities of conjunction or separation. A cause in causation may be called a ‘causative’.

This natural form of causality is definable with relative ease, with reference to conditional propositions of various types and forms. We tacitly understand the different forms of natural, temporal, extensional and logical conditioning as being expressions of an underlying ‘bond’, which we label causality, or more specifically causation. The patterns of behavior of things are empirically, and then inductively or deductively, identifiable[2]; the underlying causal ‘bond’ is a widespread intuitive assumption which requires much philosophical work to elucidate and validate.

The idea of causation may be viewed as arising from the three ‘laws of thought’, insofar as the latter establish the fundamental “if–then” relations, as in “if X, then X” (identity), “if X, then not notX” (non-contradiction) and “if not X, then notX” (exclusion of a middle), which mean “X and notX together are impossible” and “not X and not notX together are impossible”. For, once such relations are found to exist in the world and in discourse, i.e. in all the modes of modality, with regard to any term X and its negation notX, it becomes conceivable that similar relations may be observed to exist in less obvious cases, between certain other pairs of terms, like X and Y.

‘Volition’ is the term we shall apply to indeterministic causality, which may be loosely described as the causal relation between an agent and any action thereof, i.e. between a ‘person’ (be it God[3], a human being or an animal) and his[4] will (be it a personal attitude or a mental or physical motion of some sort). Note well that in volition per se, the ‘cause’ is the one who wills (at the precise time of willing), an entity called the agent or actor or doer, and the ‘effect’ is a specific act of will by that agent immediately, or thereafter more remotely any product thereof (which may or not have been intended).

This personal form of causality is far less easy to define. The simplest approach is by negation – to affirm that there is a causal ‘bond’ of some sort, while denying that it takes the form of natural, temporal, extensional or logical conditioning. Thus, volition refers to behavior which does not display fixed patterns, but in which we all nevertheless intuit a punctual causality. Indeed, we ought to say that the notion of a ‘bond’ is primarily due to the inner sense of will; it is then by analogy broadened, to include the ‘bonds’ between events external to the will. This seems true for the individual, and presumably in the history of thought[5].

The development of this fundamental, common notion of causal bond from the will to natural events proceeds as follows: whatever remains evidently unaffected by our efforts, no matter what anyone wills, is regarded as naturally ‘stuck together’ or ‘connected’. Thus, whereas volition may be defined in part by denial of the forms of natural causality (conditioning), causation is in turn defined in part by denial of the power of personal causality.[6]

Natural or deterministic causality displays patterns, accessible directly or indirectly by empirical means (they proceed from concrete perceptions, which are then generalized; or inferences from such), but its underlying bonding aspect is known only by analogy, as a conceptual development. Personal or indeterministic causality, on the other hand, is grasped first empirically (in the way of an intuited abstraction, through an inner ‘sense’ of oneself willing), and then formally distinguished by denial of ultimate invariability.

Note again that causality is essentially a relation. Since we do not perceive the relation but only at best its terms, it is not phenomenal; i.e. it has no material sensible qualities or mental equivalents of such. It is apprehended by us, as already suggested, through intuition during acts of volition, and inferred by analogy (a conceptual act) to exist similarly in causation. It is thus better characterized as an abstraction.

The statistical aspect of causation – and, by negation, that in volition – is secondary, though also a relational aspect. The latter is ontologically a mere expression of the relation, and epistemologically a way for us to discern and classify the causality. Whether the underlying relation is, or ought to be believed to be, a real ‘substance’, or whether it is a convenient projection of the imagination, is a moot question. But pragmatically speaking it is not very important, if at all possible, to find the answer.

An interesting distinction between deterministic and indeterministic causality is that individual connections are known in the former case solely by virtue of general connections, whereas in the latter case they are known per se.

· That is to say, causation involves natural laws or uniformities[7]: it is from our knowledge that one kind of thing causes another kind of thing that we know that an instance of the first kind of thing has caused an instance of the second kind of thing.[8]

· In contrast, in volition we cannot refer to induced or deduced generalities of that sort to establish a causal connection between agent and will, since by definition such connection is always singular and unpredictable.[9]

As with any other concept, the concept of will ought not be regarded as devoid of terms and conditions (“terms” here referring to the ontological identities of the surrounding entities, and “conditions” to their current temporal and spatial alignments, and their states and motions). The indeterminism of volition is always bound and circumscribed by the determinism of certain terms and conditions, i.e. by causative factors. A power of volition does not mean omnipotence, total power to do just anything; it is an allowance for a limited range of two or more possible effects, whose cause is not a causative but an agent. The oft-used expression “causes and conditions” is usually intended to mean “volitions and causations”, i.e. volitional causes and surrounding causative conditions.

Volition seems closely allied to consciousness. The range of an organism’s volitional powers apparently depends on the range of its powers of cognition. Animals with simple organs of sensation have simple organs of movement. More complex sensory systems allow for proportionately more complex motor systems.

Evidently, each entity has its own ‘nature’, its own naturally given facilities and constraints, to be actualized directly or indirectly. For each entity, some things are ‘willable’, but some are not. Some things can be willed in certain circumstances, but not in others. Some things are easily willed at a given time, while at other times only with great difficulty.

Different species have different ranges in relation to each activity. Man can do things flies cannot, like invent a rocket to the moon. Flies can do things men cannot, like fly around without machines. Similarly, within each species, individuals vary in their range. I can do things you cannot do, however much you try, and vice-versa; though we also have many abilities in common. Yet even these common powers may differ slightly: you can perhaps run faster than I, etc.

 

2. Causality and modality

‘Modality’ refers to attributes of relations such as: necessarily, possibly, actually, actually-not, possibly-not, impossibly, contingently, probably, improbably, which describe various degrees of being or knowing. These attributes are all interrelated in various ways; for example, impossibility is the negation of possibility. They are also all found in different contexts, known as types or ‘modes’ of modality.[10]

The concept of causation is closely related to that of modality. To each type of modality, there corresponds a mode of causation. We can distinguish three major modes: the logical, the extensional and the natural, if under the latter head we include the spatial and temporal modes as special cases. The logical mode is concerned with the reasons or explanations of theses; or with inductive or deductive arguments, i.e. the inferential processes from premises to conclusions. The extensional mode concerns subsumption between experiential data and concepts or between different concepts, or between the relationships among them. The natural mode deals with the phenomenal or abstract causes or effects of physical or mental events, or kinds of events.[11]

Volition is, to be precise, to be contrasted to natural causation, rather than to logical or extensional causation. Volition is of course involved in the rational processes through which logical inference and classification occur, but we cannot will such truths or relationships into being. We can identify them, or attempt or claim to, but no amount of will can make ‘true’ or ‘included’ what is not so in fact. Volition may thus be viewed as an exception to the operation of natural causation, specifically. The mode of modality or causality applicable to volition may be called the personal mode.

Some terminological conventions are worth making here, to avoid equivocations. Possibility in the natural mode may be called potentiality, and we can use the verb can in such contexts (the corresponding verb in the extensional mode would be may, and in the logical mode it would be might). In the personal mode, we may reserve the word ability for possibility and use the verb is able to; other terms we commonly use in volitional contexts are capability, capacity, potency, power. (By the way, in the ethical mode, which is a derivative of volition, we speak of permissibility and again use the verb may.[12]) Similarly for the other modalities (necessity, actuality, etc.), but no need to go into detail here.

The difference between potentiality (natural possibility) and ability (personal possibility) encapsulates the difference between causation and volition. Potentiality is actualized by natural causation, whereas ability is actualized by volition. Ability is a rather vague and ambiguous term, from a logician’s point of view, because there are many levels of readiness for volitional acts and the term ability does not specify which one is meant. I may be able to do something in principle if I take certain steps, and yet be far from able to do it right now, without further ado. Ability understood broadly is mere empowerment in principle; it merely means that some way(s) exists for volition to arrive at the result concerned, without specifying the way(s). But ready ability, depending on the wording used, may signify that we have approached the result considerably; maybe so much that it is at hand, available to us at will.

 

3. Spontaneity

Before going further in this analysis, let us look briefly at the antithetical notion of spontaneity. In its primary sense, note well, the term ‘non-causality’ is a limited reference to the lack of connection between two individual or specific things, without implying that each of these specified things is not connected to yet other unspecified things. Two things may be completely unrelated – we commonly believe this occurs in the world, so the concept of non-causality must in any case be admitted as meaningful. ‘Spontaneity’ is a more radical variation on this conceptual theme, referring to things with a general lack of connection to anything else whatsoever.

Spontaneity should be contrasted to natural causation, specifically. We do not regard the logical or the extensional modes as involving spontaneity. It might be argued that ‘axioms’ and ‘experiences’, the apparent irreducible primaries of knowledge, are logically spontaneous – but this would be a misuse of the term, because no variation occurs in these givens: they just are, forever factual irrespective of when they entered our knowledge. On the other hand, the concept of natural spontaneity ought not be limited physical events, but may equally be applied to mental ones.

Most people credit the idea that some things are connected together, while others are not – though they may in turn be connected to other things. Some people deny the existence of spontaneity, i.e. claim that everything is interconnected with at least some other things, whether by causation (only, for extreme determinists) or by volition. But it should be clear that the concept of spontaneity is not unthinkable: it just refers to a general denial of causal relations. Spontaneity may be regarded as occurring in limited domains or pockets of the world, without denying causality to exist in other levels or parts of it. Some lay people and philosophers go so far as to claim that everything is spontaneous, nothing is connected to anything else; but belief in spontaneity need not be taken to such nihilistic extreme.

In any case, to discuss the issue at all, we must admit of both the notions of causality and of spontaneity, to begin with. It is logically conceivable that some things are connected to some others, but some things are not connected to any others. We do not have to admit spontaneity for all things if we admit it for some. Also, it should be clear that if spontaneity is indeed possible for some particular thing in some particular region of the world, it does not follow that just anything may arise in that context. There may be only a certain range of possible spontaneous events, and nothing beyond that range. This can be understood with reference to disjunctions.

It is conceivable that “A must be either B or C or D, but cannot be E or F, etc.” and that “there is no thing X such that ‘if X occurs, A is necessarily B’ or ‘if X occurs, A is necessarily C’ or ‘if X occurs, A is necessarily D’”. In such case, we can predict that one of B, C, or D is bound to emerge in A (to the exclusion of other thinkable alternatives E, F, etc.), and yet be unable to predict which one, because no causative X exists for any of them. The modalities ‘must’ and ‘cannot’ in the above propositions indicate some measure of determinism; while the expression ‘or’ signifies that there are alternatives and the absence of any causation for them implies some indeterminism. Thus, determinism and indeterminism may coexist; and spontaneity may be very circumscribed, and need not be unlimited.

Nowadays, the possibility of spontaneity in matter is taken very seriously. I refer to the Uncertainty Principle of Werner Heisenberg (1927), according to which the position and momentum of a subatomic particle cannot both be measured with precision. This has been interpreted as an indeterminacy principle, i.e. as having not merely epistemological but ontological significance, notably by Niels Bohr[13]. Since this physics discovery, which is apparently here to stay, we must admit that not all natural events are subject to causation; some are seemingly governed by a less extreme, merely probabilistic, form of law. This scenario must of course henceforth be taken into consideration in our philosophical and logical analysis of causality.

But keep in mind that just because we can imagine things popping in and out of existence without rhyme or reason, as in a Walt Disney cartoon, it does not follow that such things are in fact possible. The question may also be asked: is a universe composed of only singular happenings, devoid of any regularity whatsoever, unconnected to each other in any way, fundamentally different from one in which Natural Law, or God’s Will, reigns? It is far from clear. Spontaneity in the sense of pure chance, or ultimate anarchy, is extremely difficult to define precisely; i.e. it is not certain that it is fully conceivable!

We could say that chaos is the limit at infinity of ‘complexity of law’. Chaos implies frequent crises in regularity, sudden and repeated changes of order. As order decreases, the mathematical formulae that are capable of expressing it increase in complexity. Perfect order is ultimately monism; the pluralism of the world implies various degrees of order. Chaos may thus imply extremely complex order, as well as no order at all. In other words, the concepts of chaos and order ultimately converge!

Moreover, spontaneity, in the sense of chance, is in a way a form of ‘determinism’, insofar as what happens by ‘luck’ is not under the control of any volitional agent[14]! As far as we are concerned, such events are as much out of our power as events governed by natural law – in fact more so, since the latter can at least be relied on and used, whereas the former are unpredictable (or at best probabilistic). In a world of chance, we are even more passive than in one of natural law. In other words, the concepts of causation and natural spontaneity intertwine and ultimately tend to a common – mechanistic – reading of the world.

There is even a strong element of spontaneity in indeterministic causality, in that the will is somehow, to some degree (indeed, to varying degrees), free and unpredictable. Thus, in some respects spontaneity is akin to causation, and in other respects it is akin to volition.

We may also, at a deeper level, claim everything as ‘spontaneous’ in the sense of mere happenstance. For even causative relations, as themselves objects or events in the universe, ultimately ‘just are’ – they are irreducible givens. We cannot conceive of an infinity of layers of causation; the buck has to stop somewhere – a First Cause or Prime Mover. We can only speculate as to whether the primary ‘event’ is Natural Law or God’s Will or Chance Happening.

Another possible modern application of spontaneity is the Big Bang theory of Stephen Hawking. Whereas the previous application concerned the very small (quantum mechanics), this one concerns astronomical events: the beginning of existence. It is supposed that the universe – including matter, motion, space and time – started out of nothing some 15 billion years ago (give or take some). This thesis implies spontaneity in an even more radical sense. If physicists make such claims, then philosophers and logicians must of course give them plenty of attention.

The wise position, then, at least ab initio, would seem to be to accept all these concepts at face value and avoid extremist or generalizing doctrines. The mechanical realm, or causation in a wider sense, may well range from pure spontaneity, through various degrees of individual or collective probability, to 100% connection. The latter cover apparently the majority of Nature, or at least most events we encounter in our daily experience.

 

4. Relative vs. absolute contingency

The concept of causation, or natural/deterministic causality, ultimately implies necessity. This means that when we come across a causative relation that is seemingly unnecessary, it seems so only due to our failure to uncover or to specify of all the partial causes making up the complete cause. In this context, everything is in principle predictable. Such contingency may be characterized as relative. This is how we ordinarily conceive ‘nature’ to operate, i.e. the world not counting ‘persons’.

On the other hand, the concept of volition, or personal/indeterministic causality, ultimately implies contingency. Here, contingency is meant as absolute. Such causal relations are punctual, singularities not being subsumed to generalities. Nevertheless, volition has its limits. As discussed further on, volition refers primarily to direct volition; indirect volition is a derivative concept, which considers the interplay of natural and personal causality. The latter explains why some acts of will do not necessarily have the desired result, without weakening the power of direct volition. As we shall also see, influence is another causal concept serving to realistically delimit volition: volition operates in an informational context, which can be modified by natural or volitional means. Though such context does not determine a person’s choices, it yet plays some role in their genesis, making them easier or more difficult.

Our view of nature has in fact lately become more complicated, since physics (as earlier mentioned) has come to accept real indeterminacy in subatomic mechanics and truly ex nihilo emergence of the universe. Thus, we cannot as just attempted, distinguish nature and volition simply by saying that the former implies necessity while the latter implies contingency. We must also draw a distinction between mechanical spontaneity and personal spontaneity, though they are both classifiable as absolute contingencies. We can, at least superficially, do this with reference to ‘agency’, saying that natural spontaneity has no apparent agent, whereas volition has one – a conscious agent.



[1] The Latin root causa refers to a purpose or motive, but I am not sure what its deeper etymology might be. A related Latin term is causari, meaning quarrel or dispute. Related terms in French are une cause (a court case), causer (to converse) and maybe chose (thing); in a legal context, the thing that causes, i.e. the cause, is sought through discussion about it. The etymological issue is just one aspect of the history of the concept of cause in all its guises, which has yet to be written.

[2] See my work Future Logic, parts III and IV, for a thorough analysis of conditioning.

[3] Some readers may find my occasional references to God in this work, as in my others, as misplaced. In this day and age, any reference to God is considered by many as necessarily apologetic and prejudiced. But I insist, the present is a secular and rational work of philosophy. I simply refuse to be intimidated by ignorant pseudo-philosophers, who tell the masses that atheism is an established fact of ‘science’. I consider myself a philosopher in the ancient and high tradition, which admits of no such fashionable dogma. In this context, theology is admitted as a legitimate and noble field of open philosophical debate, in which theism and atheism are both given voice and must both argue their case rationally, though both may remain forever equally speculative. In my view, people who claim that atheism is scientific are as epistemologically contemptible as those who claim knowledge of the Divine by ordinary experience and reasoning. The role of philosophy here is merely to eliminate certain incoherent ideas, and so limit the field to a more limited number of respectable ones. Beyond that, all beliefs (including the atheistic) are personal faiths.

[4] I will use the pronoun ‘he’, for the sake of brevity and readability, in a general sense, meaning He (God), he/she (a human being) or it (an animal) – i.e. any ‘person’, any entity capable of being an agent, who has the power of will. I do not by this terminology intend to express an opinion as to whether all animals have ‘personality’; perhaps only the higher animals do, but not insects or bacteria. I only wish to make allowance for the possibility, not exclude it offhand. Likewise, with regard to God – I do not, by mentioning Him, intend to express religious views. Even in the case of humans, no doctrine is intended here that all their actions are volitional. (Animists, by the way, would regard even stones as having some measure of will; some 19th Cent. German philosophers spoke romantically of the Will as a sort of general force of Nature.) Our essential object of study, here, is the abstract fact of volition or agency, and not so much its particular (real or assumed) concretizations. All this will become clear later when we discuss the natural limits of volition.

[5] It does seem – though much research would be needed to establish it indubitably as historical fact – that mankind initially explained (as of when it sought explanations) all natural motions anthropomorphically with reference to volition rather than causation. That seems to be one thrust of animist belief, which projects local spirits, genies or gods into rivers, the soil, fire, the sky and other objects (including abstract ones, by the way – e.g. assigning a spirit to the tribe) to explain their movements. Magic and ritual were used to tame or at least deflect these ‘forces of nature’. Modern philosophers, of course, are trying to do the opposite, i.e. to somehow explain volition with reference to causation or some similarly impersonal process. Nevertheless, traces of underlying ‘naturism’ unconsciously subsist in the common reference, even in scientific discourse, to a personified Nature that ‘does’ things as if it has ‘ends’ and that makes ‘laws’. This can also be viewed as a sort of secularized theism, which masks its identity by seeming to de-personify God. Of course, even the concepts of spirit and will are not innate; they must have a long and complex history, within and before mankind. Since their emergence probably antedates oral or written works of religion, philosophy or literature, we must examine archeological evidence (such as prehistoric funerary practices or ritual objects) to guess when and how they may have developed.

[6] Pitting Nature and Persons against each other, as it were: if the former wins, we have causation; if the latter, we have volition.

[7] The insight that causation concerns kinds rather than instances may be attributed to Hart and Honoré; at least, I learned it from their work. It explains why the reasoning “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (after this, therefore because of this) is fallacious: it is just too hasty. We do infer (inductively, by generalization) kinds from instances, before inferring (deductively, syllogistically) instances from kinds – but we must always remain aware of possible exceptions (inductive evidence for particularization).

[8] It would be erroneous to infer that every individual causative relation presupposes a universal one: the proposition “this X causes Y” seems superficially singular; but in practice, it means that the individual entity X always causes the kind of event Y (when it encounters some unstated kind of entity or circumstance, Z); for this reason, this singular form need not imply the broader “all X cause Y”. But that just confirms that truly ‘singular causation’ is a doubtful concept. At first sight, quantity is not the essential issue in causation; if a ‘universal’ (or kind) has but one instance, then its causation of something else might also be singular! But the issue is: how would we know about it? Are propositions of the form “if this singular event, then that other singular event; if not this singular event, then not that singular event” knowable? All we would have, surely, is an observation of the presence of this and that together, preceded and followed by an observation of the absence of both. Such conjunctions would not suffice to construct conditional propositions, which refer to negations of conjunctions! (For logicians, I would add: material implications are unknowable except through strict implications.)

[9] For this reason, the argument “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” is often used with apparent legitimacy in the field of volition (as against causation). In such cases, the underlying logic is in fact adductive, rather than deductive. The singular cause is assumed hypothetically, so long as it seems to fit available data – though such judgment may be reversed if new data puts it in doubt.

[10] For a thorough study of this topic, see my work Future Logic.

[11] Note: some propositions apparently mix modes of modality; but we are able to sort them out.

[12] See my Judaic Logic, chapter 13, for the elements of ethical logic (deontology).

[13] This is known as the Copenhagen interpretation. It should be clear that this is a case of Positivistic thinking, which could be expressed as ‘let us suppose that things are only as they seem on the surface – i.e. that there is nothing deeper down them to know’. Such reasoning is used, for instance, in the Relativity theory, where no absolute rest is conceived to underlie the various relative motions we perceive. I am not rejecting such an approach here; but it should be pointed out that its intellectual respectability in modern history is rather recent, dating from the late 19th Cent. An equivalent approach with regard to the phenomena of visual perspective would say: when bodies look smaller at a distance than when they are closer to us, they really are smaller – it is not just an optical illusion.

[14] Except, perhaps, God.

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