More rules on efficient causality

Last time I suggested a couple of rules on efficient causality.

  1. Cause and effect are simultaneous.  Changes in state may certainly persist beyond the time the cause operates, the persistence then being something not explicable from the cause, but temporal succession is not a defining feature of causality.
  2. One way to identify an effect in a physical law is that it’s the thing with the highest time derivative.
  3. Identifying efficient causes depends on knowing what doesn’t need an efficient cause, what constitutes “default” behavior (which is a matter of formal causality).

To which I’d add

  1. For A to be the cause of B, it is not necessary that A always cause B given the same circumstances.  The universe might be such that this is true, but if so, it’s a synthetic truth about our world rather than an analytic truth about causality as such.
  2. Abstractions are not causes, only positively existing things.  In particular, “the laws of physics” don’t cause things to happen.  These laws only describe the way existing things exert causality; they are ontologically grounded in the natures of existing things.  It’s just crazy to think of an entity called “Faraday’s Law” pushing around magnetic field lines like the occasionalists’ God.  I had thought this was obvious to everyone until some years ago I read an article by (I think) Steven Weinberg claiming that the laws of physics might themselves be the First Cause in the cosmological argument.  At this time, I realized that what I had thought everyone understood to be a figure of speech was being taken very literally by many of my colleagues.  It follows that equations, Hamiltonians, and the like are not properly speaking causes, but descriptions of how causes operate.  We can be sure of this even though it may happen that scientists know the mathematical description of a causal relation but not its ontological ground.
  3. The main sense of causality is what acts to generate what actually exists.  Absences as causes or effects (e.g. “death due to lack of oxygen to the brain”) are valid in a broader, more abstract, sense of causality, but a philosophy of causality should first describe causality in its main sense.

7 Responses

  1. “The main sense of causality is what acts to generate what actually exists”

    Perhaps, we can turn that round and say that it is the notion of derivation that lies at the heart of the concept..

    “For A to be the cause of B, it is not necessary that A always cause B given the same circumstances…”

    Certainly. Try applying the Humean concept of “constant conjunction to this example

    “The doorbell rang and I answered it.”
    “Why”
    “It was the maid’s day off.”

    These are certainly causal statements, but we cannot infer from this that (1) I always answer the doorbell on the maid’s day off (I may sometimes simply let it ring), or (2) I never answer it when she is at home (for I may do so, if I am expecting an important letter, or even for no particular reason). I may not even wait for the bell to ring, if I hear a car in the drive.

    Another well-known example is the fate of Schrodinger’s cat

  2. “For A to be the cause of B, it is not necessary that A always cause B”
    This formulation appears self-contradictory. Perhaps some examples from physics would be helpful here.

  3. Michael PS gives us the Humean idea:
    “The idea of cause and effect is derived from experience, which informs us, that such particular objects, in all past instances, have been constantly conjoined with each other: ”
    But CS Lewis remarks that this expectation –that things conjoined once are going to be conjoined in future-is the hallmark of animal behavior and is not human rationality at all.

    Causality appears when the reason penetrates through the conjoinings-which may be accidental or essential-and grasps the essence of things.

  4. Abstractions are not causes, only positively existing things. In particular, “the laws of physics” don’t cause things to happen.

    I like cargo cultists. I would probably have been a cargo cultist. Imagine trying to explain to them that they were wrong and why.

    Well, you see, the airstrip does not cause the cargo. Yes, I know, the airstrip came first, and immediately upon the airstrip being completed and staffed, the cargo arrived. And immediately upon the airstrip being un-staffed and partly disassembled, the cargo stopped.

    It’s more like the cargo caused the airstrip. Well not even that. There are these guys sitting in tiny offices ten thousand miles from here. And these guys, let’s call them logisticians, they have an elaborate secret plan for how their superpower is going to defeat another superpower. And, well, this crappy little island you call the world occupies a trivial few lines in the plan. But those trivial few lines require us to move cargo through here, and that requires an airstrip. So, you see, cargo and airstrips are really caused by a plan in the collective minds of a bunch of green eye-shade-wearing ubergeeks in a gigantic five sided building ten thousand miles away.

    I suspect I would be a cargo cultists under these circumstances, but I know Ed Feser would be. And the guy trying to explain about the far-away ubergeeks would get to be a delusional conspiracy theorist.

  5. […] I liked this one from Bonald on the Atheist 10 Commandments a lot. It is quite interesting, and I think quite prescriptive, to note how far the 100% Authentic, Original (Accept No Substitutes), Un-messed Around-with 10 Commandments did not go in creating a philosophical or ethical system. Also, some more rules on efficient causality. […]

  6. What makes you think Ed Feser would be a cargo cultist? I didn’t follow that.

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