A Causal World

A Causal World

There are two ways to think about causation: either it is something that exists in addition to an antecedent reality of objects and properties or it is constitutive of reality. According to the first way, if you removed causation from the world, you would be left with constant conjunction, a real world of recognizable things; according to the second way, you would be left with nothing, since causation is what reality fundamentally is. The first way is dominant in our intellectual tradition, which is why some people contemplate doing without causation in our conception of the world. Causation is mere icing on the cake (a dubious icing according to some). Reality is not fundamentally and inherently causal reality. After all, we don’t see causation, or if we do it is not ubiquitous, not omnipresent. Empiricism militates against causal foundationalism. Yet there have been voices that champion causation-based metaphysics: Schopenhauer and Shoemaker, in particular (with their similar-sounding names). True, Schopenhauer preferred to speak of Will, but his general conception is causal in thrust; Shoemaker just comes right out with it—properties are causal powers.[1] I will explore this idea further. The metaphor I like compares causation to fungi: fungi are everywhere, they are basic to life, but underappreciated because of their general invisibility. They largely live underground, only peeping above ground for purposes of reproduction. They were there before plants and animals and allowed these parvenu life-forms to come into existence (on land anyway). They are root causes, so to speak. The general idea of causal metaphysics is that everything in the physical and psychological world is a cause—an active, generative producer—and that is all that reality is. There is nothing more to things than causes. Reality reduces to causation (“causal reductionism”). That was Shoemaker’s radical message: he was a functionalist about properties in general—properties are defined by their causal roles. A property like shape is a causal power. It isn’t something separate and distinct (he is an identity theorist about properties). An object, then, is a bundle of powers—a congeries of causes. Causation is not a part of (concrete) reality; it is the whole of it. Reality is composed of causes. It isn’t that causation coexists with non-causal inactive components of reality; it constitutes all of reality. Shapes are causes, and so are colors (possibly mental causes, if you are a subjectivist about color). Forces are obviously causes, but so are the things that forces act on—planets, for example. Causes cause other causes. It’s causation all the way down—pan-causalism, nothing but causes. This view is apt to seem hyperbolic, if not patently false: for that is not how we see the world, how it seems to us. It might be noumenally constituted by causes, but it isn’t phenomenally purely causal. The world seems innocent of causation for long stretches and short ones: inactive, unchanging, inert, stable. How then can it be constituted by causal interactions? Sometimes nothing moves, nothing happens—isn’t that because there is nothing causal going on? We are not observing any effects, so causation is taking a break from its usual exertions. However, this view is deeply mistaken, as science has shown: we are subject to illusions of inactivity. We are simply not witnessing the ever-present fact of causal activity. Take the motion of the earth: it seems to us that the earth is not moving and not under the influence of a force, but it is—we just don’t experience it. The earth is caused to move by the sun’s gravitational force—at every second and for all of its existence. Likewise, when objects on the earth’s surface are stationary (relative to the earth) they are held there by earth’s gravitational field; they are caused to stay still by a force we don’t see. Most strikingly, the coherence of physical objects is not the result of zero causal activity but of counterbalancing forces at the atomic level—the positive and negative charges of protons and electrons, respectively. Objects are caused not to fly apart; they don’t remain stable spontaneously. We are thus victims of a widespread illusion, making us think that nothing causal is going on, when in fact the world is pulsing with non-stop causation. It’s as if we could only see beehives from a distance and formed the idea that nothing is going on inside them, whereas in fact they are centers of buzzing activity. True, we don’t perceive the ceaseless causality of the world, but it is there nonetheless, under the surface. In fact, it is doubtful that we ever really see causality (as Hume pointed out), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the foundation of everything we do see (along with its characteristic type of necessity). We thus don’t appreciate the omnipresence of causality and miss its foundational status. But actually, as Shoemaker realized, it is impossible to sever the connection between properties and powers, no matter what the appearances may be. Causation is the fungus of the universe; its hidden driving force. Or better: all is fungus, when you get right down to it.[2] A.J. Ayer used to like to say that causation is just one damn thing after another; the truth is that things are just causation manifesting itself. The world is Will, Force, Activity, Necessary Connection, Influence, Push and Pull. Causation is in every nook and cranny.[3]

[1] See his Identity, Cause and Mind (1984).

[2] Of course, it is not true that all is fungus in botany, poetically apt as that might sound; but in metaphysics all might be causation (causal fungus). This is perfectly compatible with the Humean thesis that we don’t really know what causation ultimately consists in; in particular, we don’t know what causal necessity is (objectively, intrinsically).

[3] A few decades ago, it became fashionable to propose causal theories of many things: perception, knowledge, reference, action, memory. But no one ever proposed a causal theory of everything—the whole world. If causation is a notion in good order, however, it becomes attractive to consider the possibility that all properties, objects, and facts are causal in nature. Thus, causal metaphysics: causation is ontologically basic. (I’m not supposing ethical and mathematical facts are causal, if such there be; I’m discussing only concrete facts that enter into causal relations.) Hume described causation as the “cement of the universe”; according to causal metaphysics, it is the universe.

2 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    I guess prima facie there are qualitatively different types of causes. Consider a vibrating string on a musical instrument. What caused it to vibrate (it was plucked) is different to what causes it to vibrate the way it does (its boundary conditions). Although maybe all causes can be reduced to boundary conditions of some form (that channel the motion of things). In which case the thesis would become “boundary conditions are ontologically basic”.


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