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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
cause as an ethical ideal

Causality (also referred to as causation is the relation between an event (the cause) and a second event (the effect), where the second event is understood as a physical consequence of the first.

In common usage, causality is also the relation between a set of factors (causes) and a phenomenon (the effect). Anything that affects an effect is a factor of that effect. A direct factor is a factor that affects an effect directly, that is, without any intervening factors. (Intervening factors are sometimes called "intermediate factors".) The connection between a cause(s) and an effect in this way can also be referred to as a causal nexus.

Causes and effects are typically related to changes, events, or processes; such causes are Aristotle's moving causes. The word 'cause' is also used to mean 'explanation' or 'answer to a why question', including Aristotle's material, final, and formal causes; then the 'cause' is the explanans while the 'effect' is the explanandum. In this case, there are various recognizable kinds of 'cause'; candidates include objects, processes, properties, variables, facts, and states of affairs; failure to recognize that different kinds of 'cause' are being considered can lead to debate.

The philosophical treatment on the subject of causality extends over millennia. In the Western philosophical tradition, discussion stretches back at least to Aristotle, and the topic remains a staple in contemporary philosophy.



Western philosophy


Aristotle identified four kinds of answer or explanatory mode to various "Why?" questions. As a result of traditional peculiarities of language, with translations between ancient Greek, Latin, and English, the word 'cause' is nowadays customarily used to label Aristotle's four kinds.

  • Material cause, the material from whence a thing has come or that which persists while it changes, as for example, one's mother or the bronze of a statue (see also substance theory).
  • Formal cause, whereby a thing's dynamic form or static shape determines the thing's properties and function, as a human differs from a statue of a human or as a statue differs from a lump of bronze.
  • Efficient cause, which imparts the first relevant movement, as a human lifts a rock or raises a statue.
  • Final cause, the criterion of completion, or the end; it may refer to an action or to an inanimate process. Examples: Socrates takes a walk after dinner for the sake of his health; earth falls to the lowest level because that is its nature.

Of Aristotle's four kinds or explanatory modes, only one, the 'efficient cause' is a cause as defined in the leading paragraph of this present article. The other three explanatory modes would now be called material composition, structure and dynamics, and, again, criterion of completion. The word that Aristotle used was αἰτία. For the present purpose, that Greek word would be better translated as "explanation" than as "cause" as those words are most often used in current English. Another translation of Aristotle is that he meant "the four Becauses" as four kinds of answer to "why" questions.

In some works of Aristotle, the four causes are listed as (1) the essential cause, (2) the logical ground, (3) the moving cause, and (4) the final cause. In this listing, a statement of essential cause is a demonstration that an indicated object conforms to a definition of the word that refers to it. A statement of logical ground is an argument as to why an object statement is true. These are further examples of the idea that a "cause" in general in the context of Aristotle's usage is an "explanation".

The word "efficient" used here can also be translated from Aristotle as "moving" or "initiating".

Efficient causation was connected with Aristotelian physics, which recognized the four elements (earth, air, fire, water), and added the fifth element (aether). Water and earth by their intrinsic property gravitas or heaviness intrinsically fall toward, whereas air and fire by their intrinsic property levitas or lightness intrinsically rise away from, Earth's center—the motionless center of the universe—in a straight line while accelerating during the substance's approach to its natural place.

As air remained on Earth, however, and did not escape Earth while eventually achieving infinite speed—an absurdity—Aristotle inferred that the universe is finite in size and contains an invisible substance that held planet Earth and its atmosphere, the sublunary sphere, centered in the universe. And since celestial bodies exhibit perpetual, unaccelerated motion orbiting planet Earth in unchanging relations, Aristotle inferred that the fifth element, aither, that fills space and composes celestial bodies intrinsically moves in perpetual circles, the only constant motion between two points. (An object traveling a straight line from point A to B and back must stop at either point before returning to the other.)

Left to itself, a thing exhibits natural motion, but can—according to Aristotelian metaphysics—exhibit enforced motion imparted by an efficient cause. The form of plants endows plants with the processes nutrition and reproduction, the form of animals adds locomotion, and the form of humankind adds reason atop these. A rock normally exhibits natural motion—explained by the rock's material cause of being composed of the element earth—but a living thing can lift the rock, an enforced motion diverting the rock from its natural place and natural motion. As a further kind of explanation, Aristotle identified the final cause, specifying a purpose or criterion of completion in light of which something should be understood.

Aristotle himself explained,

Cause means
(a) in one sense, that as the result of whose presence something comes into being—e.g., the bronze of a statue and the silver of a cup, and the classes which contain these [i.e., the material cause];
(b) in another sense, the form or pattern; that is, the essential formula and the classes which contain it—e.g. the ratio 2:1 and number in general is the cause of the octave—and the parts of the formula [i.e., the formal cause].
(c) The source of the first beginning of change or rest; e.g. the man who plans is a cause, and the father is the cause of the child, and in general that which produces is the cause of that which is produced, and that which changes of that which is changed [i.e., the efficient cause].
(d) The same as "end"; i.e. the final cause; e.g., as the "end" of walking is health. For why does a man walk? "To be healthy", we say, and by saying this we consider that we have supplied the cause [the final cause].
(e) All those means towards the end which arise at the instigation of something else, as, e.g., fat-reducing, purging, drugs and instruments are causes of health; for they all have the end as their object, although they differ from each other as being some instruments, others actions [i.e., necessary conditions].|Metaphysics, Book 5, section 1013a, translated by Hugh Tredennick

Aristotle further discerned two modes of causation: proper (prior) causation and accidental (chance) causation. All causes, proper and accidental, can be spoken as potential or as actual, particular or generic. The same language refers to the effects of causes, so that generic effects are assigned to generic causes, particular effects to particular causes, and actual effects to operating causes.

Averting infinite regress, Aristotle inferred the first mover—an unmoved mover. The first mover's motion, too, must have been caused, but, being an unmoved mover, must have moved only toward a particular goal or desire. So the universe of material causes, formal causes, and efficient causes reflected the universe's final cause.

Middle Ages

In line with Aristotelian cosmology, Thomas Aquinas posed a hierarchy prioritizing Aristotle's four causes: "final > efficient > material > formal". Aquinas sought to identify the first efficient cause—now simply first cause—as everyone would agree, said Aquinas, to call it God. Later in the Middle Ages, many scholars conceded that the first cause was God, but explained that many earthly events occur within God's design or plan, and thereby scholars sought freedom to investigate the numerous secondary causes.

After the Middle Ages

For Aristotelian philosophy before Aquinas, the word cause had a broad meaning. It meant 'answer to a why question' or 'explanation', and Aristotelian scholars recognized four kinds of such answers. With the end of the Middle Ages, in many philosophical usages, the meaning of the word 'cause' narrowed. It often lost that broad meaning, and was restricted to just one of the four kinds. For authors such as Niccolò Machiavelli, in the field of political thinking, and Francis Bacon, concerning science more generally, Aristotle's moving cause was the focus of their interest. A widely used modern definition of causality in this newly narrowed sense was assumed by David Hume. He undertook an epistemological and metaphysical investigation of the notion of moving cause. He denied that we can ever perceive cause and effect, except by developing a habit or custom of mind where we come to associate two types of object or event, always contiguous and occurring one after the other. In Part III, section XV of his book A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume expanded this to a list of eight ways of judging whether two things might be cause and effect. The first three:

1. "The cause and effect must be contiguous in space and time."
2. "The cause must be prior to the effect."
3. "There must be a constant union betwixt the cause and effect. 'Tis chiefly this quality, that constitutes the relation."

And then additionally there are three connected criteria which come from our experience and which are "the source of most of our philosophical reasonings":

4. "The same cause always produces the same effect, and the same effect never arises but from the same cause. This principle we derive from experience, and is the source of most of our philosophical reasonings."
5. Hanging upon the above, Hume says that "where several different objects produce the same effect, it must be by means of some quality, which we discover to be common amongst them."
6. And "founded on the same reason": "The difference in the effects of two resembling objects must proceed from that particular, in which they differ."

And then two more:

7. "When any object encreases or diminishes with the encrease or diminution of its cause, 'tis to be regarded as a compounded effect, deriv'd from the union of the several different effects, which arise from the several different parts of the cause."
8. An "object, which exists for any time in its full perfection without any effect, is not the sole cause of that effect, but requires to be assisted by some other principle, which may forward its influence and operation."

In 1949, physicist Max Born distinguished determination from causality. For him, determination meant that actual events are so linked by laws of nature that certainly reliable predictions and retrodictions can be made from sufficient present data about them. For him, there are two kinds of causation, which we may here call nomic or generic causation, and singular causation. Nomic causality means that cause and effect are linked by more or less certain or probabilistic general laws covering many possible or potential instances; we may recognize this as a probabilized version of criterion 3. of Hume mentioned just above. Singular causation means that unique particular chains of actual events are essentially and physically linked by antecedence and contiguity, which we may here recognize as criteria 1. and 2. of Hume mentioned just above.

19th century: The Second Law of Thermodynamics

In thermodynamics, a branch of physics, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, discovered in the 19th century, helps define an arrow of time. This provides an opportunity to physically describe how causes differ from effects: The sum of effects can never have lower entropy than the sum of causes - provided equilibrium conditions.

This is more thoroughly described below.

Causality, determinism, and existentialism

The deterministic world-view is one in which the universe is no more than a chain of events following one after another according to the law of cause and effect. To hold this worldview, as an incompatibilist, there is no such thing as "free will". However, compatibilists argue that determinism is compatible with, or even necessary for, free will. Existentialists argue that while no intrinsic meaning has been designed in a deterministic universe, we each can provide a meaning for ourselves.

See also






Psychology & Medicine:

Sociology & Economics:

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