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Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

David Cowles

Jul 20, 2023

“What can’t be true often is and what must be true often isn’t.”

It is a persistent theme running through all our work at Aletheia Today: What can’t be true often is, and what must be true often isn’t. Our goals: challenge assumptions, smash idols, think dangerously! For example…

We are mesmerized by the concept of causality. “Who’d a thunk it?” (Hairspray) I cry - and someone feeds me, or changes me, or hugs me. Cool beans! Later, I learn that causality has a downside as well. “If you touch the stove, you get burned.” Not so cool after all.

It seems as though everything has a cause, and everything in turn causes something else. Perhaps, we can be forgiven for concluding that there must be a causal link between what has been and what is now. If B came after A, surely we’re entitled to infer that A caused B?

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Then, sometime during high school, middle school if you’re ‘posh’, we are introduced to a memorable Latin phrase:  Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Translation: After that, therefore because of that! Perfect. Our intuition is validated.

Except it’s not! We are introduced to ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc as a logical fallacy: Just because something comes after something else doesn’t mean that it was caused by that ‘something else’. For example, the Red Sox won the world series in 2004 after an 85-year-long drought (Curse of the Bambino). In 2016, Donald Trump was elected President (post hoc). But the Red Sox 2004 win presumably did not cause (propter hoc) Trump’s win.

So, if we’re planning to continue our love affair with causality, we’ll need to find a more specific link between events than mere sequence, but that turns out to be more difficult than it seems…so difficult in fact that eminent Scottish philosopher, David Hume, threw up his hands in frustration. He denied the doctrine of causality per se, at least as it is conventionally presented.

Instead, Hume developed a dubiously consistent account of ‘perceived regularities’ that relied on concepts like repetition, memory, habit, consistency, coincidence, conjunction, and correlation. Understanding Hume is the work of a lifetime, but to my untrained ear his notion of regularity sounds a lot like Pavlov’s. The bell does not cause the food to be dispensed, but the two events are highly correlated.

Excluding the effects of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, it is fairly easy to determine which of two events, A and B, came before the other. Would it not be safe to say that either (1) A happens before B, or (2) B happens before A, or (3) A and B happen simultaneously? But that alone tells us precisely nothing about whether either event caused the other. 

On the other hand… When I was but a lad, it was commonplace for the AP Exam in American History to ask the examinee to write an essay on the causes of the Civil War. Successful essays were likely to cite a multitude of such causes. According to Karl Marx, events like the Civil War are neither ‘caused’ nor ‘uncaused’ but rather ‘over-determined’, i.e., caused by multiple overlapping and mutually reinforcing streams of influence.

However, absent AI…or good old-fashioned cheating, no two essays were ever the same. Each student would draw up a quasi-unique index of influences and then crystallize those influences into her own quasi-unique causal matrix. 

Only in the most superficial sense is there any hard-wired connection between events before Fort Sumter and events after Fort Sumter. Yet surely, there are strong causal chains connecting the two periods.

Unfortunately, like Einstein, Hume was ahead of his time. He needed Chaos Theory to complete his model, but he died 100 years before Henri Poincare formulated the earliest version, 150 years before Alfred North Whitehead systematized it (Process and Reality), 200 years before Benoit Mandelbrot elaborated it, and 250 years before ‘New Agers’ popularized it (Gaia). 

As is so often the case in life, rather than retreat from our problems (e.g., causality), we need to push through them. Rather than deny causality outright, we needed to develop a more comprehensive concept of causality. Chaos Theory is such a concept! 

Per Whitehead, when any event occurs, it occurs in the context of an inherited Actual World (AW). When we say that A caused B, we are merely affirming that A is in B’s AW. But to whatever extent it is true to say that an event (B) is caused by another event (A), it is just as true that B is entirely uncaused

The cause of B is never any one ‘thing’ (A) but always the entirety of things that constitute B’s AW, including A itself. Whatever comes to be is ‘caused’ by whatever is; every event is a unique expression of a unique Actual World. One world, one event; one event, one world!

The process by which an event inherits its AW is never mechanical (i.e., determined); each event is a novel, creative response to its AW. Likewise, it is as true to say that B constitutes its AW as it is to say that its AW constitutes B. The relationship is symbiotic and reciprocal. 

It’s hard to talk about, isn’t it. That’s because of that darned Tower of Babel (a metaphor for linguistic dysfunction)! Linguistically, it is only possible to model ‘causality’ using verbs in the Middle Voice  – a voice that is sadly no longer functional in most Indo-European languages. 

Post Script: As we speak, ChatGPT is writing an essay showing just exactly how Trump’s election was a consequence of the Red Sox success. Advanced AI can find relationships between events that we’d otherwise never notice. AI can sample, almost instantly, any AW. AI may end up proving, at least empirically, the ontology laid out in this article: i.e., each event is caused by every other event! 


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