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Cause, Causation & Causality

Updated on January 8, 2010

In physical science the truths to be discovered generally relate to the connection of cause and effect, and we usually call them 'laws of causation' or 'natural laws'. By the 'cause' of an event we mean the circumstances which must have preceded it in order that it should have happened. Nor is it generally possible to say that an event has a single cause and no more. There are usually many different things, conditions, or circumstances necessary for the production of an effect, and all of them must be considered causes or necessary parts of the cause.

Aristotle distinguished four kinds of causes for the existence of a thing: (1) the Material Cause, the substance or matter composing it; (2) the Formal Cause, the pattern, type, or design according to which it is shaped; (3) the Efficient Cause, the force employed in shaping it; (4) the Final Cause, the end, motive, or purpose of the work.

Causality is considered in the problem of whether reality exists at all beyond our own thoughts. Thus according to Descartes the certainty that reality exists could be reached through the medium of causality. Empiricism maintains that the supposed truth that every event must have a cause is derived in a sense from experience; for it could not very well be supposed to be in the mind of anyone who had not witnessed instances of causation.

The Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect
The Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect

But critics of empiricism ask whether it be really true that every event must have a cause, in the future as well as in the past, and affirm that all that mere experience could tell us would be that certain particular events in the past have had a cause. Locke includes causation among the truths that are necessarily and universally true, i.e. truths that are due to some capacity of the mind that goes beyond the mere collection of past experiences. The idea of causality enters into the consideration of the belief in an identical self, another important problem in the growth of empirical philosophy. The necessity of the causal relation conditions Berkeley's advance from the mere existence of ideas to his conception of the world as a universal and rational system of signs, dependent upon God. He found, as he thought, a basis for the reality of causation, in that free activity of Spirit which is rationally intelligible, though not picturable to the imagination.

But this position still leaves unanswered the question: What is the impression from which the idea of causality is derived? Again, if the belief in the necessity of a cause does not go back to any intuitive or demonstrative truth, it must come from observation and experience, a position which Hume considers in the form: Why do we believe that any particular cause will necessarily be followed by some particular effect? And the only reason there can be is that we have found this effect to follow in the past. Kant agrees with Hume, that universal judgments of necessary connection go beyond experience; but while Hume denies that there are such judgments, Kant affirms that there are, and shows that in mathematics and physics we constantly make them (what he called a priori synthetic judgments).

Hegel partly supports Kant's phenomenalism, agreeing that causality is a category, but holds that a series of causes never goes back to an original cause, but only to an infinite regress of finite causes, none affording an ultimate explanation.

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