The problem of causation remains an intriguing avenue of thought for philosophers, at least for the last few centuries. At the heart of it lies the proposition that causes and effects cannot be discovered by reason and all our explanations, in this regard, depend upon past experiences and observations. This proposition was best described by David Hume in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He prepares his case while raising skeptical doubts about operations of human understanding:
[…] Let an object be presented to a man of ever so strong natural reason and abilities; if that object be entirely new to him, he will not be able, by the most accurate examination of its sensible qualities, to discover any of its causes or effects. Adam, though his rational faculties be supposed, at the very first, entirely perfect, could not have inferred from the fluidity and transparency of water that it would suffocate him, or from the light and warmth of fire that it would consume him. No object ever discovers, by the qualities which appear to the senses, either the causes which produced it, or the effects which will arise from it; nor can our reason, unassisted by experience, ever draw any inference concerning real existence and matter of fact[…] In like manner, when an effect is supposed to depend upon an intricate machinery or secret structure of parts, we make no difficulty in attributing all our knowledge of it to experience. Who will assert that he can give the ultimate reason, why milk or bread is proper nourishment for a man, not for a lion or a tiger?
It would amount to oversimplification if I continue elaborating the problem at hand without acknowledging the development of classification of causes by Scholastics during Middle Ages, especially when the Aristotelian notion of Motor Cause was substituted with Efficient Cause. Without going into unneeded details, it is appropriate to assume at this stage that causation, as we are discussing it now, is the efficient cause, that is: what acts in order to make something happen or exist. However, it does not mean that present discourse is completely unconcerned with ‘What a thing is made of’ or ‘Why it is how it is’; it is just that causation as we understand it conventionally is the one that is efficacious.
Interjecting this subtlety, I now return to what was being asserted.
According to Hume’s proposition, our understanding of any causal relation between an event A and B cannot truly escape our own impression of their constantly conjoined occurence. Our mental faculties keep inferring fallaciously that A is actually causing B, i.e. causing it to happen, or to be more precise, bringing it out of nowhere. Hume continues:
Were any object presented to us, and were we required to pronounce concerning the effect, which will result from it, without consulting past observation; after what manner, I beseech you, must the mind proceed in this operation? It must invent or imagine some event, which it ascribes to the object as its effect; and it is plain that this invention must be entirely arbitrary. The mind can never possibly find the effect in the supposed cause, by the most accurate scrutiny and examination. For the effect is totally different from the cause, and consequently can never be discovered in it. Motion in the second Billiard-ball is a quite distinct event from motion in the first; nor is there anything in the one to suggest the smallest hint of the other. A stone or piece of metal raised into the air, and left without any support, immediately falls: but to consider the matter a priori, is there anything we discover in this situation which can beget the idea of a downward, rather than an upward, or any other motion, in the stone or metal? And as the first imagination or invention of a particular effect, in all natural operations, is arbitrary, where we consult not experience; so must we also esteem the supposed tie or connexion between the cause and effect, which binds them together, and renders it impossible that any other effect could result from the operation of that cause.
Though seemingly tautological, Hume’s presentation literally establishes the impossibility of deducing anything about existence of a thing or event by reflecting upon the one with which it is conjoined. This effectively means, if I go back to my earlier example, that we cannot use ‘gravity’ to explain the phenomenon of falling of physical bodies without begging the question.
This deceitful inference, instigated by the idea of efficient cause, and the realisation that follows, point us towards various startling conclusions.
Foremost being that scientific laws may be based on unjustified causation as coexistence of A and B cannot be ideally called a ‘law’. It also purports an understanding of a purely Mechanical world where independant objects keep acting on each other, thereby producing change. It also means that causal laws of nature are not true logically and there is no concrete evidence that these will continue to hold in future.
to be continued…