Reality and Causation (1895)

VI.—Reality and Causation.

Part II.

§7. Causation. The state of the controversy.

I propose presently to try if, by the method made use of in regard to Reality and Identity, it is possible to throw any light on the great problem of Metaphysics, the problem of Causation. We may glance first, however, at the present state of the controversy. It is worthy of remark that, while modern science completely ignores the scepticism of Hume in regard to the existence of the external world, as a matter with which it has no concern, in England, at any rate, its most eminent representatives have adopted, and have, not without considerable enthusiasm, promulgated his doctrine of causation. That the idea of cause and effect contains nothing more than invariable succession, and that nothing has anything in it that connects it with anything else were conclusions which Hume put forth, in his day, as something extraordinary but which seemed to be founded on sufficient evidence. To-day they are enounced by such men of science as Professor Huxley as if they were on a par in certainty with Newton’s 1st law of motion; as if to doubt or to deny them were merely to proclaim one’s own philosophical and scientific incompetence. Yet nothing is more certain than that the denial of causation was based on the denial of the reality of the outward world, and that it has no sort of locus standi apart from it. If the world is not for us a mere current of ideas, then we let in again the notions of action, quality, power and efficacy; notions the very existence of which, as notions, was denied by Hume and Mill, but which, if readmitted, bring with them causation in a very different sense from that of mere antecedence and consequence[1]. (§7 ¶1)

§7 ¶1, n. 1. Hume’s contention that cause and effect were nothing but invariable succession was based on his theory that all ideas are separable in thought. This applies, of course, to such ideas only as are mental images. The idea of poison, which imports, If you eat it, it will kill you, is inseparable in thought from mankind, from the animal world, from life and death and indeed from the universe.

When brought to the test of individual instances, their doctrine will not, I think, be found to present a degree of self-consistency adequate to warrant the dogmatic manner in which it is laid down. Mr Mill, the most careful and accurate writer of this school, defines a cause as a physical fact on which some other physical fact is invariably consequent; and as he thinks that everything that begins has a cause, we may put it that he lays it down that every physical fact has some other physical fact on which it is invariably antecedent. But has it?[1] The formula might possibly square with the rotation of the earth, or the recurrence of the tides, or even with the appearance of the rainbow, but never with the wanton and endless variety of animated nature. The individual facts of life and history happen once and never recur. How then can they be invariably consequent on anything? Moreover, if it was from this invariability alone that we acquired the notion of causation, I cannot see how we could acquire it till the end of life[2]. When you find a child in tears and ask him why he is crying, and he answers, because he hit me, can anyone imagine that what is running in his mind is anything about the invariability of consequence between blows and tears, an invariability which does not even exist? Is it not plain that he could affirm causation of the blow the first time he was hit as well as the last? (§7 ¶2)

§7 ¶2, n. 1. That we think we see what Mr Mill means by his formula is not, of course, a sufficient justification of the formula, if it does not, as it stands, square with what it purports to describe.

§7 ¶2, n. 2. I cannot help thinking that, unconsciously, another uniformity is running in the minds of those who propound the doctrine; the uniformity, viz. that gives a sound its objectivity, the uniformity of its effect on us and all around us.

Another definition of causation given by the same writer is that the scientific cause is the total of conditions without which any event would not happen. We have thus the full cause of daylight, he says, when we have the sun risen above the horizon, his light not extinct, and no opaque object between us and him. True, we have; but we have also an absolutely complete description of the effect, of daylight itself. That can hardly be an adequate definition of the cause which fails to distinguish it from the effect. Again, Mr Mill says that the term cause may be properly applied to any one of these conditions, and that it is a mere caprice of language to which. Caprice, however, is no more the rule in regard to the natural use of words than it is in regard to any other natural phenomenon. If we could properly call any of the conditions at random the cause, no matter how completely irrelevant they were, then we might, in some conceivable circumstances, rightly assign the Attraction of Gravitation as the cause of the success of Offenbach’s operas, because without the Attraction of Gravitation neither he nor his operas nor his audience would ever have been there; then too, the very thing that we emphatically state not to be the cause, might be rightly said to be so. We can say, for example, that Mrs Brown was the best dressed woman in the room, though the material of which her dress was made, being inexpensive, was not the cause of her being so; but, plainly, the material was one of the conditions of her being dressed at all, let alone well dressed. (§7 ¶3)

§8. The inverse relation between knowledge and reality.

Our knowledge of any subject begins with individuals and goes on from them to wider and wider generalities. These widest generalities have, however, the simplest content. Hence, it has come about that, in all departments of thought, mankind have, in all ages, shewn a disposition to place them first instead of last as the subjects of investigation. Hence Hume and his followers, in commencing their enquiry as to the nature of causation, have made the mistake of looking first to those applications of the word which have the widest range but the minimum of connotation. They have thought that they could satisfy themselves that there were cases in which the word cause could mean nothing more than antecedence and consequence, and have proceeded to conclude that it could never mean anything more in any sense. We have seen, on the contrary, in regard to Reality, that the word meant very much more in the type instance than it did in some of its derivative applications, and so I think we shall see in regard to causation. Of all the idola tribus, this tendency to begin at the wrong end, to put the abstract before the concrete, is the most pervasive in its influence, and the most difficult altogether to escape. Knowledge in this respect we forget is not built on the pattern of existence. The process in existence is from the simple to the complex, from the egg to the bird, from the seed to the tree. In knowledge, on the other hand, it is from the individual with its full content, which it would exhaust the resources of all the sciences to describe, to the bare notion of existence itself. Aristotle laid his finger on the source of the illusion when he spoke of our tendency to put the whole before the parts where we ought to put the parts before the whole. (§8 ¶1)

For many generations in natural science men were arguing from the general to the particular and getting no farther ahead by it, till Bacon put them on the right track. Indeed, every important rectification of philosophical error seems to have taken the shape of shewing that it is the individual fact which should take precedence of the general truth as a subject of enquiry. The fallacious tendency dies hard. When, a few years ago, a series of Science Primers was issued by the leaders of the English Scientific World for the use of children between twelve and fifteen years of age, they commenced with a treatise on questions of a metaphysical nature, on the yet unravelled and unexplained distinction between Law and Cause. We have a conspicuous example of its influence in the practice still prevalent in most of our schools of commencing the teaching of languages by teaching their grammar; much of what they teach under the name of syntax being really metaphysics, and erroneous metaphysics at that. We have another, perhaps, in the success of a system of philosophy which takes the Aristotelian categories[1], the highest classes into which existence can be divided, and gives them a mental position antecedent to sensation itself. In other departments of thought it has manifested itself in the famous fiction of the social contract between king and people at the dawn of history, in the conception of the criminal law as something handed down from ancient lawgivers, and in the common failure to recognize that a law which is anything more than the registration of an already formed public sentiment is inevitably valueless. (§8 ¶2)

§8 ¶2, n. 1. Modified, of course. The mistake is common, though less obviously, to all systems which take the hypostasised sensation and place it as antecedent to the outward object.

§9. The type instance of Causation.

What I have said in the last section seems to justify the method of commencing an enquiry into the meaning of such words as Reality and Causation by an investigation of the meaning of type instances. Let us then look for a type instance of Causation. (§9 ¶1)

Ask anybody but a metaphysician, What would you mean by causing anything?; he would probably say, Doing something, and if he could not explain what doing something is, he could take any object lying on one end of the table and move it to the other end and say, That is doing something. What happens then in such a case as this? (1) There is motion on the part of two objects in contact, the mover and the thing moved, say my hand and the ink bottle, ending, as soon as the motion of the former ceases, in change of place of the latter; the joint motion of the two presenting to sense, for a short time, one phenomenon. The cause, in such a case, completely fits the effect. (2) The motion begins on the part of the cause, before the motion on the part of the thing moved, or if not before, at any rate simultaneously with it. If the motion did not begin till after, we would not call it the cause. (3) The cause must not be manifestly moved by something else. For example, if I should put three books in a row and push them along, the causing of the motion in the book furthest from me would not be referred to the intermediate books but to me[1]. I am looked on as originating the motion. I see no escape from this conclusion, yet it plainly will not square with the current opinion that there is something which makes us think that every cause must itself have a cause. The truth is the very opposite. My action would not be called the cause, if it were not believed to be uncaused[2]. That it is caused by the combination of the food we eat, and so on, is something that we do not find out till long afterwards, and nine-tenths of the world do not find out at all. Self caused, some one may suggest, but a second self which causes the actions of the first is plainly a fancy of sophisticated metaphysicians, not a thought of the natural man. If I see that the cat is not where she was when last I looked at her, I never think of enquiring what is the cause of her change of place. The notion of cause does not emerge in such a case at all. If, on the contrary, I see that my slippers are not where I left them, I know there is a cause for that. Something living, it may be a child, or it may be a puppy, has moved them. The type notion of cause then primarily imports reference to some living thing. The type instance it is that gives us our ideal of causation. (§9 ¶2)

§9 ¶2, n. 1. It may be said the intermediate books would be looked on as intermediate links in the chain of causation, but I think not. We think of the engine as the cause of motion in the train, but not of the second carriage as the cause of motion in the third.

§9 ¶2, n. 2. Motive, I think it will be clear later on, is only a cause in the derivative sense, which is not reached when the type meaning is constituted. In the type instance everything is patent to sense.

In the change of place of the ink bottle caused by my hand I have said that the cause perfectly fitted the effect. What I mean will be clearer if we take the case of a piece of putty and the displacement of part of its substance by the pressure of my finger. Here, as in the former case, the cause fits the effect, at the time, but here also it leaves a track behind it. The effect is here of such a sort that the cause can be afterwards seen to have fitted it, or, in other words, to have been perfectly adequate to the production of it. (§9 ¶3)

§10. Hypothetical causes[1].

Let us now take an example of a different sort. Let me take this stone, hold it over a tumbler of water and let it go. It sinks to the bottom. This sinking is an added phenomenon. I do not find the cause of it in my act, which was quite similar to my former one, which yet was attended with no result similar. I must look out for another cause for this sinking. Why, it may be asked, must I? For this reason simply, that I have imbibed with language the classification of stones among dead things, that is, things that do not move unless something else moves them. The stone has moved, and we have our choice between calling it a living thing[2], and enquiring who or what has moved it. We enquire in vain; nothing is to be found; so we formulate an expression for the fact that it will sink whenever put into water, in the words, perhaps, that its specific gravity is greater than that of water, and then, for want of any other cause, we call this specific gravity itself the cause. Here, for the first time, the meaning of Cause becomes entangled with the meaning of Law. How wide a difference there is between causes of this sort and causes of the primary sort may be seen from this, that a regress through them does not lead us any further back in time. If Gravitation is rightly called the cause of weight[3], it is not because Gravitation has even an imaginary priority, in point of time, to weight, that it is so called. (§10 ¶1)

§10 ¶1, n. 1.It will be seen below that hypothetical is not used as opposed to real, but only as opposed to actual.

§10 ¶1, n. 2. As conceivably an Early Greek, or one brought up in a pantheistic faith, might.

§10 ¶1, n. 3. The use of Cause here may be open to question. Professor Huxley thus uses it (Introductory Primer, p. 27). Also Professor Balfour Stewart (Physics Primer, p. 8). Professor Huxley warmly asserts that Laws are not Causes (Introductory Primer, p. 13) while on the previous page he has cited as an example of a cause the relation between the strength of a branch and the force of the wind that breaks it (Introductory Primer, p. 12).

We often fail to recognize to how great an extent what we call the world of fact is really a world of hypothesis. Into the meaning of everything, there enters the conception of what it would, in appropriate circumstances, be or do. In regard to Geometry it was long ago pointed out that the science was one of hypotheses only. Then came the problem, to understand how, if so, it came to have any application to the world of fact. When we consider, however, that the very meaning of the distance of anything from me in the world of fact is the length of the straight line that I would construct if I moved up to it in a uniform direction, we can see that the problem is not insoluble. The meaning of equality is not immediate coincidence, but something very different. It is the fact that the objects of which it is predicated would if superimposed coincide. The difference is the same as that between perception and object, between sensation and quality. In Mr Mill’s opinion, there is no difference in the latter case; as, in Hume’s, there is none in the former; but there is surely a difference in both, that the quality or the object may be one while the perceptions or sensations that correspond to them may be innumerable. In Mr Mill’s view, a quality is nothing at all; it is a mere delusion due to the careless use of language; but it surely has existence of a sort even when not in operation. The specific gravity of the stone even when not sinking in the water, does not stand on the same footing as a purely conventional quality such as the power of the Chess Queen to sweep the board. Language guides us rightly in making us think of qualities as in a sense existing, nor can we get on without attributing causation to them. We must, however, bear in mind that it is not causation in its full and typical sense that we attribute. (§10 ¶2)

As the characters of human beings are the properties of natural objects, inclination, motive and desire, when thought of as causes, are causes in this secondary sense only. (§10 ¶3)

§11. The uniformity of Nature.

We can now perhaps understand what Mr Mill meant by saying that the scientific cause was the total of conditions without which any event would not happen. The specific gravity of the stone relatively to water, plus my act in putting it into the water, are a compendious expression for the total of relevant conditions necessary to the stone sinking. We can thus, in this case, have the total of conditions present with the effect yet uncompleted, and can thus divide cause and effect in thought. It is here first that we come in contact with the conception of the uniformity of nature, and with invariable succession as a characteristic of causation. It is to be observed that we do not reach it at all till we have a world articulated into things, properties, and events. Invariability of recurrence could have no meaning as applicable to a current of ideas. So that, though Hume’s theory of causation was based on his idealism it will not in any way square even with it. (§11 ¶1)

Though causing can often be used as synonymous with doing, there is a distinct shade of difference of meaning between the two. Causing is more often used of what is brought about indirectly than what is done directly. Causation imports the existence of a gap which the cause, when assigned, fills up. The gap, however, may not be in the facts themselves, but only in our knowledge or that of our interlocutor. I move the ink bottle. That is doing something. You find it moved, and ask what is the cause of its change of place. This aspect of cause it is, that makes us use it convertibly with such words as explanation or reason,—that makes us say that we understand anything when we know its cause. In mechanics the changes that take place are changes which we have under our eyes all the time; we can follow and understand them. In chemistry, on the contrary, the curtain falls for an instant on human knowledge, and when it rises a metamorphosis has taken place[1]. Instances cited from chemistry therefore are the favourite example chosen by those who maintain that there is nothing in causation but antecedence and consequence. Even in regard to cases of this sort, however, that cannot be admitted. How could we use invariable succession to prove causation if causation itself were nothing but invariable succession? We should then be using invariable succession simply to prove invariable succession. What is running in our minds is affirming causation in such cases, I think, is the conviction that if our powers of observation were greater we should be able to fill up the intermediate links and to understand the process of causation in such cases, as we do in mechanics. Towards the filling up of these links it is that science is continually striving. The metamorphosis of a drumbeat into a sound is still inexplicable to us. Some intermediate links, however, have been filled up for us when we learn that the beaten drum communicates vibration to the air which it in turn communicates to the drums of our ears. The process of filling up the intermediate links is, from another point of view, the process of creating generalizations, of reducing the phenomena of sound to a general law. The two things seem very distinct. It is a matter of surprise to us to find that they are one. When we reach the type instance there is nothing left between cause and effect but the most abstract of all conceptions, that of being. The meaning of cause thus becomes still further involved in that of law, and we come to think that we have made a step in the direction of understanding any sequence when we can shew it to be an instance of a more general law. We have a perfectly adequate explanation of any fact, however, only when we can refer it to the act of a living being. When we refer it to a law of nature, even the widest, we have a provisional explanation only; one that we think may serve us till we can get a better; and even if we conclude that we never can get a better, this does not prevent us from regarding the explanation that we have got as provisional and inadequate. (§11 ¶2)

§11 ¶2, n. 1. The two sorts of change need some appropriate words to distinguish them. They might be distinguished as patent and shrouded. In some departments of sense there are intermediate degrees, as in the mixture of colours and the transformation of noises into musical sounds.

§12. Cause and sensation.

The causation that we attribute to the objects of the external world in producing impressions on our senses is of course the secondary sort of causation which we attribute to qualities, powers and properties, not the primary sort which we attribute to the acts of living beings. In the sensations which give us sound and light and so on, there is a metamorphosis, and with it the possibility of illusion. From this is taken the notion that all the information that sense can give is illusory or symbolic. We may ask, Illusory or symbolic as compared with what? Because the refraction of rays of light makes us see something in a position in which we know it is not, we say sense may be illusory, as if any sense may be. But how do we know that the thing is not in the position in which the information conveyed through the eye makes it appear to be? Because the information conveyed by the eye differs from that conveyed by muscular activity. It seems then that our opinion as to the untrustworthiness of vision is due to our taking for granted the complete trustworthiness of muscular activity. It is surely then an absurdity to take the notion of illusoriness as compared with the standard and give it a possible application to the standard itself. There is no similarity, though there is a proportion, between vibrations and the sounds they give rise to; but to say that the combined sensations and inferences which build up the conceptions of extension and solidity have no similarity to the qualities of extension and solidity in the outward object, is so far from the truth that it would be truer to say that the two are one thing. Indeed it requires some subtlety, even in thought, to distinguish them. They are, like cause and effect, in our type instance, for a moment one fact and they fit each other with the same precision. They are related to each other as the specific gravity of the stone is to any individual instance of its sinking in water, as the equality of two objects is to the fact of their coinciding on any occasion on which they are superimposed. If Mr Mill had called his possibilities of sensation cause of sensation there would have been nothing left to argue about. His view would have been indistinguishable from that of naïve realism. Possibility is an abstraction and so, in Mr Mill’s own view laid down elsewhere, not susceptible of a plural; cause, in its secondary sense, is the very word and only word for expressing that which he endeavoured to express by possibility. The Thing in itself is of course a chimera. That which realizes all that there is of the possible in the conception is nothing more mysterious than the ordinary object of the outward world in the aspect of its primary qualities[1]. (§12 ¶1)

§12 ¶1, n. 1. Hartmann, it seems, thinks that position and movement in things are the same as they are in the mind. W. Caldwell, The Epistemology of Ed. V. Hartmann (Mind, April, 1893, page 192).

§13. Force and causation.

We are accustomed in mechanics to the conception that states of rest are states of equilibrium and that the withdrawal of any force will give some counteracting force fuller play. Putting cause for force we may perhaps greatly extend the application of this conception. Mr Mill cites such a fact as the capability of the absence of a sentinel from his post to be assigned as the cause of the surprise of an army, in support of his view that the caprice of language may assign any condition whatever, even a negative one, as a cause. But the absence of the sentinel was no more a negative condition in truth than would have been the undermining of a bridge which lay in the army’s route. The presence of the sentinel on guard was one of the causes that preserved for the time being the equilibrium, the status quo. His withdrawal let other causes come into play and thus the disaster occurred. My present state of wealth is a state of equilibrium between my efforts to become much wealthier and the competition of those in the same profession or line of business. The price of anything is, of course, the equilibrium between the desires of purchasers and vendors. If two young people are in love, with the attachment as yet undeclared, their state is one of equilibrium between inclination and conventional restraint. The same principle holds good through every department of life and science. As things too are states of matter, it probably extends to all things. Mr Darwin’s great generalization has taught us that the existence of every species is the result of contest and survival; so perhaps is everything actual, from the course of a ship to the existence of alps and Andes, from the formation of a cabinet to the currency of the last slang expression. When we observe too how close an analogy there is between the operations of incipient reason[1] and the operations of natural selection, each being characterized by innumerable blind chance trials ending at last in one thing being hit on that succeeds, it seems possible that the manifestations of reason both in man and nature may be brought under the same law of survival. (§13 ¶1)

§13 ¶1, n. 1. Compare Professor Bain on the growth of voluntary power (The Emotion and the Will, Ed. 2, page 315).

§14. Virus acquirit eundo.

There is another aspect in which what we know of causation in mechanics may be susceptible of extension to causation generally. Newton’s 1st Law, that what is at rest remains at rest till moved and what is in motion continues in motion at a uniform rate till arrested, is, as regards the phenomena to which it is applicable, the most elementary statement of the principle of the uniformity of nature. The first half appears self-evident, the second a paradox. Mankind only came to discover it by the necessity of finding something to account for the acceleration of velocity under the operation of a constant force. Have we not something analogous to this in psychology, in the fact that a pursuit only congenial at first often becomes at last all absorbing, in the growing inveteracy of habit; in the increase of affection or repulsion under the influence of continual intercourse; in commerce, perhaps, in the exaggerated upward and downward fluctuation of the markets, often likened to the swing of the pendulum; and in history, in such phenomena as the ever accelerating growth of the British, the Roman, or the Russian empires? Cessante causa cessat et effectus is perhaps no more true of states of mutation generally than it has been found to be of states of motion. (§14 ¶1)

§15. The properties of artificial objects.

It is often said that man can create nothing. If a property, however, is anything, he can create properties. The property is the salient thing indeed about an artificial object; that from which it takes its name; that, it may be said, which constitutes its nature. Man cannot create the materials out of which a watch is made, but he can create its nature, that of being something that tells the time. When we use the word make we always mean giving to things a nature that fulfils a purpose. I take this plank and throw it aside; I do nothing except move a plank. I take this other plan and lay it across the drain in front of me to walk over. I may be said then to make a bridge. The only difference between the two acts is in respect of the purpose subserved. It is to be remarked further that the property created may be said to be capable of existing in a fashion apart from the original material of which it was a property, and to be transferable to other material. When Wordsworth wrote the Excursion, he imported to certain paper and ink new properties, and these new properties have since been transferred to innumerable other combinations of paper and ink. Surely, in such a case, it will not be denied that Wordsworth was the producing cause of the Excursion. What could be meant by affirming that there was nothing but the relation of antecedence and consequence between Wordsworth and the Excursion, I leave it to someone else to explain. (§15 ¶1)

§16. Conclusion

We know the superstructure that has been built on the foundation that cause and effect are nothing but antecedence and consequence. The conclusion is arrived at, perhaps, with the late Professor Clifford, that the Universe, as a whole, is mindless, or, at any rate, that the operation of mind there is altogether beyond the range of human inference. Does this conclusion stand or fall with its premises? That is too large a subject to enter on at present. This much may be said, however, that it is brought into suspicion by the company in which it is found. I think it is clear that the theory that antecedence and consequence are the sole content of the idea that causation fails altogether to square with the facts of life and nature, and does not fail to land those who propound it in self-contradictions; and so, probably, must any theory which leaves out of account the existence somehow and somewhere of purpose, forethought, and intention, in nature. (§16 ¶1)