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Cause and Effect

David Cowles

Aug 29, 2023

”…We are proposing a new model of causality - one that is super strong locally (Laplace) and vanishingly weak everywhere else (Hume).”

It’s the first thing we learn; then it’s the first thing we’re taught: cause and effect. The first months of our lives were spent discovering how ‘crying’ gets our various physical and emotional needs met. (For some of us, this process is still ongoing.)

I touch some things and I have a sensation, touch other things (body), two sensations. Some things move, others resist, the cat pushes back.

Then adults get into the act: “Actions have consequences,” as if we didn’t know that already. But we must please our caretakers; and so gradually but inexorably our encyclopedia of actions and reactions spills over onto additional shelves in our library. 

Everything we do has a consequence. To be is to act and to act is to impact, so it seems as though nothing could be more tightly woven into the fabric of reality than cause and effect. I slide my toy car across the living room floor. It moves. Then my younger brother runs into the room, steps on the car, and cuts his foot. Did I cause that? The family court of injustice is just now meeting in impromptu session to determine the extent, and consequences, of my guilt. 

The verdict is in: ‘Guilty of reckless play, heedless of the welfare of others’, but the sentence is ‘suspended’ due to lack of intent. Whew! Dodged that bullet this time, but hey, the morning’s young. In fact, my brother’s ‘accident’, as they’re now calling it, set off a whole chain of events: a trip to Urgent Care, a problem paying the bill, a big fight between Mom and Dad… Did I really cause all that?

Yes…and no. I did cause the car to move. When I pushed the car, it was almost 100% certain that it would roll across the bare floor, but the chances that my brother would come along at just that moment, step on the car, and cut his foot? Less than 1%.

Something’s ‘afoot’ (no pun intended)! Almost everything that’s happened this AM is a consequence of my sliding a toy car across a floor. If I had played with my cloth puppet instead, it is highly unlikely that things would have unfolded as they did. Of course, much worse stuff might have happened; there’s just no telling.

On the one hand, my action preceded everything that’s happened today chez moi. But did I cause my parents’ argument in the same sense that I caused my car to roll? Clustering these different phenomena under one conceptual umbrella makes little sense. 

In the mid-18th century, a Scottish philosopher, David Hume, noticed these same issues (minus the toy car). He concluded that apparent causal connections are merely correlations. Hume moved causality out of the realm of physics, into the realm of mathematics (probability theory).

Things did not go well for Hume: “If I punch you in the nose, I bet you’ll bleed; if I hit you with a stick, I bet you’ll cry.” 50 years later, another philosopher, Pierre-Simon Laplace, ceremoniously inducted Hume’s bullies into the august Academy of Western Philosophy. He proposed a model of reality as a rigid causal network in which every event is strictly determined by its antecedents. 

According to Laplace, if we knew everything worth knowing about any ‘now’, we would be able to calculate everything worth knowing about any ‘then’, past or future, no matter how remote. For 200 years, the ideas of Laplace held sway in the Western world. Marxism, Pragmatism, and Positivism (logical or otherwise) all owe a debt to Laplace. But the 20th century was as unkind to Laplace as the 18th century had been to Hume (minus the stick and the bloody nose). 

First came Quantum Mechanics (Schrödinger et al.): events happen probabilistically. Hume was right after all! “Sorry about the bloody nose, David.” Then came Uncertainty (Heisenberg): it’s not possible, even theoretically, to know enough about any ‘now’ to calculate the details of any ‘then’. But John Bell (1964) delivered the coup de grâce: the behavior of two ‘entangled’ particles exhibits correlation, but not causality, regardless of the distance between them. 

Can anyone ‘explain’ this crazy world to me? Enter Alfred North Whitehead (c. 1930). Whitehead provided a framework that fuses the insights of Hume and Laplace (more accurately, Hume and John Locke) into a theoretical framework that accounts for what we call ‘causality’ and for what we call ‘correlation’. Some rabbit, some hat! Wanna see how he did it?

The world is made up of events, aka ‘Actual Entities’ (AE). Each novel event emerges from its unique Actual World (AW): i.e., from a nexus of all prior events arranged in a pattern consistent with the perspective and objectives of the emerging AE. 

Each AE constitutes its own AW and simultaneously reacts to it in one single act. Guided by transcendental values (Beauty, Truth, Justice), each event forms a concept of itself (its ‘superject’) which it seeks to project into the Actual Worlds of all future AEs. This superject is the AE’s Objective Immortality (OI). Every AE is the cause of its own OI. 

Then what? Our AE’s Objective Immortality becomes part of the Actual World of every future event. It influences all but causes none. AEs cause themselves (they are sui generis), but every AE comes to be by reacting to its AW, which is a nexus of OIs caused by previous AEs.

The patterns we observe among and across AEs are correlations. So we are proposing a new model of causality - one that is super strong locally (Laplace) and vanishingly weak everywhere else (Hume). In a word, it is fair to say that I caused my toy car to slide across the bare floor, but it would be unfair to say that I caused my brother’s foot to bleed.


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