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Updated on August 15, 2014

Cause & Effect

The relationship between a cause and its effect. This relationship was defined by Aristotle as a relation between events, processes or entities, the one being a reason or explanation (a 'because') of the other.

Causality is the relation of cause and effect; the principle that everything has a cause.

Four Different Types of Cause

Aristotle distinguished four different types of cause:

  • material cause: what a thing is made of
  • formal cause: what it is
  • final cause: what its function or purpose is
  • efficient cause: what brought it about

What is Causality?

Causality is a relation in which one thing, situation, or event is the cause of another thing, situation, or event, which is called the effect. The cause produces the effect by creating something new, by changing something that already exists, or by preserving a situation that would otherwise change.

Causality is called proximate when the cause immediately precedes and occurs near its effect. It is called remote when there are intermediate steps between the cause and its effect. Multiple causality occurs when several causes act to produce an effect.

One of the first men to discuss causality was the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who distinguished among four kinds of causes: the formal, the efficient, the material, and the final. The 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume questioned whether there is any necessary connection between a cause and an effect. He held that causation consists merely of anything being constantly accompanied by another, as when thunder follows lightning. This view is now accepted by some philosophers.

David Hume

Later philosophers and scientists came to regard efficient causes as the only real ones, until this notion was itself attacked by the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume.

In his theory of causality, Hume argued that the concept of cause involved no more than what he termed constant conjunction: to say that A caused B (caused: brought about or made to happen) is simply to say that A-type events are always followed by B type events. The theory obviously contains a flaw, since for example, it is not true that day causes night. But, so far, philosophers have found it extremely difficult either to refute Hume's argument or to amend his definition to rule out such cases.

The Child's Conception of Causality

According to Piaget, the development of the child's conceptions of causality follows much the same pattern as his conceptions of reality. Piaget distinguishes seventeen types of causal relations in children's thinking, which he grouped into three main functional categories according to the ages at which they occur:

1. Psychological, realistic and magical: ages one to six. Refers strongly to egocentric modes of thought. The child may explain the motion of clouds by saying that they move because we are bad (motivational). Or he may explain cloud movement on the basis of his own motion (realism), or again that perhaps the clouds move because he wants them to (magical).

2. Artificial, animistic, dynamic: ages six to nine. The child may attribute life to inanimate objects (animism), or he may give dynamic force to objects without attributing life to them (the rock flies through the sky by itself). And in artificial thinking, he may explain natural events in terms of attributing desire to physical objects (the clouds move because they want to).

3. The more rational types: ages ten to seventeen. This age gives children more logical, adultlike explanations based on empirical observation or knowledge gained from books.

"it may be very well that the psychological laws arrived at by means of our restricted method can be extended into epistemological laws arrived at by the analysis of the history of the sciences: the elimination of realism, of substantialism, of dynamism, the growth of relativism, etc., all are evolutionary laws which appear to be common both to the development of the child and to that of scientific thought" - Jean Piaget

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