Thursday, June 7, 2012

On being causal and being caused

A fair amount of human activity is motivated by the desire to identify the causes of things, in answer to the questions 'how?' and 'why?'.  Answers to the latter question generally begin with the word 'because', followed by a description of circumstances that are thought to explain (make 'sense' of) whatever it was that inspired the question.

Of course, as any parent knows, any answer to to the question 'why?' only invites the same question again, as the explanation itself needs explaining.

To anyone who makes the effort to think about it (which apparently does not include politicians, pundits, or much of the voting public), it becomes quickly apparent that the notion of 'causality' is a complex can of worms.  It is, therefore, a ripe subect for philosophy, one that (like so many others) was thoroughly developed by Aristotle, who identified four causal categories: material, efficient, formal, and final.  According to Aristotle, explanations that fail to identify causes from each category are inadequate.  Of all the categories, final cause is most relevant to the question 'why', because it is the reason for a thing's existence--its intended purpose, a specific goal that fulfills some want or need.  Thus, the final cause of something is (or requires some notion or inkling of) the thing itself, or at least whatever it is that the thing will do that is desirable.

Science is ostensibly all about identifying natural causes, in order to enhance our ability to predict and control nature ('knowledge is power').  Francis Bacon, a founding father of the scientific method, sought to simplify the whole problem of causality by declaring that natural philosophy should not be concerned with 'final cause' (and to some extent formal cause as well), since the latter is something that exists only in the minds of human beings and God.  That, along with the dualism of Descartes, effectively disallowed any scientific explanations of nature involving mental anticipation and intent.

One thing that all explanations have in common is that they refer, either explicitly or implicitly, to history.  That is, the cause of anything that is happening now is something that happened in the past.  Since naturalist explanations aren't allowed to invoke mind, they do not allow for the possibility that future possibilities can influence past events.

So in general, scientists do not really address the question why--at least not in the way that it is addressed by everyone else (e.g. detectives in seeking the 'motive' of a crime).  And consequently, if we are philosophical naturalists and take the view that nature is only that which is defined by strict Baconian/Cartesesian science then we have to say that nature lacks purpose, which leads logically to the nihilistic conclusion that beyond selfish human concerns, nothing really matters: life is a Bohemian Rhapsody. 

Seeking causes is well and good, but we tend to take it way too seriously, and too far.  The notion of causality undoubtedly has an ontological basis, but the quest to identify causes is entirely epistemological--a mental phenomenon.  So it is really a linguistic problem, and like all linguistic problems, it can be interpreted too literally.  Anything and everything has myriad (perhaps an infinite number of) causes.  But literalists of all stripes fall into the binary trap of thinking that a cause is THE cause, and annoyingly, will often insist that you are wrong if you suggest that there are others worth considering.

It seems to me that if we avoid that trap then the specter of existential nihilism evaporates.  And, since 'being causal' and 'being caused' have direct bearing on the notions of being 'to blame' and 'at fault', forgiveness also comes a bit easier.