Posted by: dacalu | 10 October 2012


The more I study religion and science, the more I see the question of causation as a problem.  In particular, I think we have a really hard time communicating about one thing leading to another without incautiously sneaking in assumptions that other may not hold – particularly those controversial assumptions that cause the greatest controversy.  In an attempt to clear that up – for me as much as for you – I’d like to see if I can’t lay out a clearer way of talking about it.


Let us start with simple causation.  I’m going to assume for the moment that we can observe, recognize, and meaningfully comment on causes. Logic will not get us there, but pragmatically it seems necessary to talk about the universe.  (One major alternative is “occasionalism,” if you want to know more.)  In philosophy lingo, I’ll say  that strict temporal correlation may be considered causation.  If A always occurs before B and B always occurs after A, then we can say A causes B with high confidence (if not certainty).


We observe causation, which I will write

X >> Y (X causes Y)

Consider “flipping the light switch causes charge to flow in the wires, which in turn causes the lights to turn on.”


An event may have two causes.

(W + X) >> Y (W and X together cause Y, but neither will alone.)

(W OR X) >> Y (W and X each cause Y independently.)

W >> X, X >> Y (W causes X and X causes Y)

So far, this is all pretty straightforward observation.  Now for the tricky bits.

{X} (X is uncaused)

The possibility exists that an event may not have a cause.  I’m not saying it happens (at least not here); I just want you to create a mental place holder for it. Unfortunately, I cannot give you an example of an uncaused cause, because we cannot observe them.  Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, therefore one cannot logically argue from ignorance about causes to a total lack of causes.

One can (inductively) reason from the regular existence of causes to the generality that all events must have causes.  Indeed, Aristotle makes this very claim as do many modern scientists.  Everything, they say, must have a cause.  This presents a problem.  Once you’ve accepted that everything has a cause, you either need an infinite regression of causes or a circle of causes – both of which are somewhat unsatisfying intellectually.  The first case requires an infinite stretch of time reaching into the past as well as infinite number of events.  It seems less a causal explanation than a perpetual putting off of the problem.

∞… >> X >> Y

The second case avoids the parsimony problem by limiting the chain of events to a fixed length, but begs the question of where the chain comes from.

[… E >>] A >> B >> C >> D >> E >> A [ >> B …]

but ? >> (A…E)

If we say nothing, then we have, by definition


which fails to solve the exact problem it’s designed to solve.  So, which do you find less appealing?

∞… or {X}

Those seem to be the only options.  Logicians from Aristotle (384-322 BCE) to the 19th century shied away from infinity because it could not be clearly defined.  Georg Cantor (1845-1918) was the first to introduce reasonable definitions.  Empiricists have always shied away from infinity, first because it cannot be observed and second because of the principle of parsimony (or Ockham’s Razor) which always seeks the explanation with the fewest elements.  An explanation with infinite elements would then be worse than any explanation with finite elements.

For these reasons, most philosophers in the last millennium have favored {X}.


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