Efficient Causality

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As commonly used, the productive action of the agent, or efficient cause, or the relationship of such a cause to its effect. Though philosophers prefer a broader meaning (see causality), the terms cause and causality are usually taken to mean this sort of thing, and in what follows this usage is adopted. What this general description obscures, however, is that there may be no common or single meaning for what goes under the name of efficient cause or causality. And this may explain why philosophers have argued more over causality than over any comparable topic. The controversy is reflected already in the way such causes are classified, but it becomes yet more pronounced when one attempts to formulate the causal proposition in precise fashion or to specify the origin of man's conviction that nothing happens without a cause.

Classification. One need but review the more commonly used philosophical and theological distinctions to see what diverse meanings are marshaled under the caption of efficient cause. Many of these point up the unique way in which Christian thinkers have come to view God's causal relationship to creatures.

Primary vs. Secondary. This is particularly true of the tendency of Christians to speak of God as the first or primary cause, in comparison to whom all other agents are only secondary causes. What is implied in this way of speaking is that, since God alone is uncaused, only He exercises His causal efficacy in an absolute or independent fashion. All other agents depend on Him not only for their initial existence (as a statue depends on the creative power of the sculptor) but for their remaining in existence (which the art object obviously does not).

Productive vs. Conservative. This leads to the further distinction made by medieval thinkers between causes that are merely productive (e.g., the sculptor) and those that conserve their effect by a kind of continuous creativity. For aristotle, efficient causes are always productive, whereas the continued existence or conservation of the effect is ascribed to the material, formal, or final causes. In Neoplatonic adaptations of Aristotelian cosmogony, however, all continually creating or conserving causes responsible for the very being or existence of a thing are also classified as efficient causes. alfarabi, avicenna, and averroËs, for example, believed God created immediately only the first and most perfect of the pure spirits or intelligences responsible for producing the animated planetary spheres. Each intelligence in turn created the one immediately below it in perfection, as well as the animated planet it moved as an unmoved mover in the manner of a final cause. Thus a hierarchy of pure spirits emanated from the creative mind of God in chainlike fashion through a peculiar type of efficient causality, reminiscent in some respects of the Christian conception of how the divine Son proceeds from the Father by an eternal and necessary form of generation.

Being vs. Becoming. Though Christian thinkers generally, from St. thomas aquinas to R. descartes, admitted that only God could create in a strict sense, they retained the distinction under the title of cause of being (causa essendi ) as opposed to the cause of becoming (causa fiendi ). God is the only instance of the former whereas all other causes, inasmuch as they require some medium or material with which to work, fall into the latter class.

Accidentally vs. Essentially Ordered. Where a chain of such efficient causes is involved, scholastics speak of them as being accidentally ordered to one another in producing their final effect. In a series of procreative causes such as grandfather, father, son, and grandson, for instance, the offspring is not essentially dependent on his ancestors as co-causes in the actual exercise of his own generative powers. On the other hand, causes are essentially ordered to each other if they differ in kind, yet cooperate as a single principle of their common effect. Such would be a causal chain of intelligences as Avicenna described, or male and female in generation, or the mind and object according to some theories of cognition. Here neither cause can exercise its proper causality apart from the co-causality of the other; yet neither owes to this causality what it specifically contributes to the end result.

Essential vs. Coincidental. This distinction should not be confused with another philosophical classification of Aristotle and the scholastics, viz, essential (per se ) vs. coincidental (per accidens ) causes. Essential causes produce their effect by deliberate intent or by their very nature. Effects resulting from the chance interplay of natural causes or unintentionally happening to or produced by persons, however, are ascribed to chance and to fortune respectively and are called coincidences or accidents.

Free vs. Natural. This leads to a further subdistinction of essential causes into those that are free (i.e., act with foreknowledge and deliberation) and those that are natural (i.e., once the requisite external conditions are present, act in an automatic or determined fashion by reason of their nature or internal constitution). Nature, as the totality of all such causes, came to be regarded by modern thinkers as acting according to unalterable or deterministic laws, a conviction that went unchallenged until the advent of quantum theory in the 20th century.

Physical vs. Moral. The distinction between physical and moral causes reflects another extension of the notion of efficient causality as regards free agents. A physical cause produces an effect by its own direct action, either immediately or by way of some instrument, e.g., the carpenter who builds a bookshelf or the golfer who putts a ball. A moral cause, however, usually refers to a person who by appeal, threat, or the like, induces a second person to act. Here the agent must be distinguished from the motives he sets forth by way of inducement. The latter come under the category of final causality. The expression moral cause is applied also to anyone who is ethically or legally responsible for an action's taking place even though he does not make use of a free agent. Thus the man who turns his dog on a bypasser or the doctor who refuses to give his patient the proper medicine or prescribes some quack remedy instead may each be a moral cause of the damage done.

Proximate vs. Remote. Where a chain or sequence of causes is involved, it is customary to distinguish between the proximate, or immediate, cause of the effect and those more remotely related to it. As Avicenna points out, the true cause should coexist with its effect; yet what commonly goes by the name of cause is not the proximate cause but some more remote event or causal situation preceding it in time.

Univocal vs. Equivocal. Another distinction frequently used by scholastic thinkers is that of univocal and equivocal causes. The latter are unlike their effects, whereas the former produce effects of the same nature as themselves. Parents are univocal causes of their offspring, but God is an equivocal cause of his creatures. Fire applied to combustible material is a univocal cause of the resulting flame, but a painter is an equivocal cause of a portrait.

Immanent vs. Transitive. Immanent causes produce their effects within themselves; transitive causes affect something other than themselves. Any vital activity, for example, is an instance of immanent causality, since it is initiated in and by the organism and tends to perfect it. But the degree of immanence varies accordingly as it applies to the life functions of plants and animals or to such spiritual activities as thinking, feeling, willing, and the like. Divine causality, on the other hand, is described as formally immanent inasmuch as it is identified with the divine nature itself; yet it is virtually transitive inasmuch as its effects are something really distinct and other than God (see causality, divine).

Total vs. Partial. Another common distinction is that between total and partial cause. Carpenters, plumbers, or plasterers are each a partial cause of the house they construct; man, on the other hand, is said to be the total cause of his own decisions or even of such physical actions as walking, swimming, speaking, and so on.

Principal vs. Instrumental. A peculiar type of partial cause is that known as instrumental. In contrast with the principal cause or agent that produces an effect by virtue of some inherent power or action it initiates, an instrumental cause helps the principal agent do what he could not otherwise do or do so easily. Since the notion of instrument has a measure of vagueness about it, there is also some latitude as to how philosophers and theologians apply it (see instrumental causality). Some require that the instrument be more or less passive, e.g., the hammer or chisel of the sculptor. Such tools produce their effect only because of the power communicated to them by the principal cause. When power tools are used, or still more, when the surgeon or radiologist merely applies an instrument with a self-contained energy source, the aforementioned interpretation needs some revising. Others extend the notion still further when they speak of all created or secondary causes as being merely instrumental agents with respect to God, and this not because God creates and conserves them, but rather because He cooperates in a special way each time they exercise their causal powers. Scholastics commonly hold this to be the case not only with the natural causes but also with the exercise of free will, though there is no agreement as to how God concurs with man's free decisions (see bÁÑez and baÑezianism; molinism). All agree, however, that unless man is the principal cause of his own actions, he can scarcely be regarded as morally responsible for them. Consequently, many prefer to discuss the divine concurrence with created causes in terms of the first-named distinction between primary and secondary causality rather than in terms of that between principal and instrumental causality.

Participated vs. Unparticipated. Another way of expressing the fact that creatures exercise their own proper causality, albeit dependently on God, is to say that they share or participate in God's creativity. As the scholastics put it, creatures are called participated causes, whereas God's causality is said to be unparticipated. This medieval usage has its philosophical roots in plato and plotinus, for whom the transcendent world of absolute values and ideals (identified by St. augustine with the divine mind) is that which most truly exists. Applied specifically to efficient causality, it leads the Christian thinker not only to regard God's causal action as a paradigm case of what cause means but also as that which, despite its uniqueness, is paradoxically most typical. This way of viewing things, however, tends to obscure the fact, stressed by contemporary philosophers of the linguistic school, that this notion of cause and causality is a far cry from what goes by that name in ordinary, nonphilosophical usage. Particularly among the skeptical and the agnostic, it further raises questions as to the propriety of such an extension of the usual meaning of cause and, still more, as to the validity of the traditional causal approach to the existence of God.

Causal Proposition. The force of such contemporary objections concerning the scope of application of causal notions becomes clearer from a consideration of the problems posed by any attempt to express in a general way what all or most instances of efficient causality imply. One such problem is how to put the causal relationship itself in propositional form. Perhaps the most neutral and universally acceptable statement is "Whatever begins to be has an efficient cause." This avoids such trivial and uninformative versions as "Every effect has a cause" or "No effect without a cause," where no factual criterion is given for identifying an effect or instance of efficient causality. On the other hand, it is not limited to a specific sense of cause as is the determinist's manifesto: "If, in the course of time, a state A of the universe is once followed by a state B, then whenever A occurs, B will follow it" (P. Frank, 54). How to interpret "efficient cause" still remains to be decided. In Plato's Philebus (26E), for example, Socrates asks: "Does not everything which comes into being of necessity come into being through a cause?" He goes on to describe the cause or agent as "leading" and the effect as "naturally following." If one understands this in a temporal sense, it at best describes a cause of becoming (fiendi or fieri ) and not a cause of being or existence (essendi or esse ), although it is the latter that figures in the proofs for the existence of God in Avicenna and Aquinas. It should be obvious that this point must be settled before one can answer satisfactorily another question often raised, viz, whether the causal proposition is a principle or a conclusion.

If principle be taken in its etymological sense of a starting point or first premise that needs no proof because it is either self-evident or its truth is commonly admitted, then the causal proposition may be regarded as a principle (see first principles). It was so estimated by Plato, Augustine, and the scholastics, though they rarely called it a principle explicitly; the question of whether its denial is self-contradictory became a philosophical issue only in the 14th century with scholastics such as nicholas of autrecourt. On the other hand, neoscholastics in the last quarter of the 19th century commonly cited it as a basic principle of metaphysics, and many claimed it to be an analytic truth in the Kantian sense of the term. Most of these, however, worded it in some form equivalent to "No effect without a cause," where it could be shown to be trivially true by virtue of a circular definition of terms. But when "beginning to be" or contingency was taken as the hallmark of an effect, the reputed analyticity of the proposition was soon challenged. A few contemporary scholastics influenced by I. kant speak of it as a synthetic a priori truth, and others as a postulate of reason; the majority, however, justify it as a proposition entailed by other metaphysical doctrines, such as that of the real distinction between essence and existence or that of participation, or by the more general principle of sufficient reason. [For a neoscholastic critique of this principle, see Mansuetus a S. Felice, De discordia systematis rationis sufficientis cum libertate humana dissertationes septem (Cremona 1775); also A. B. Wolter, Summula Metaphysicae (Milwaukee 1958) 5355.] see causality, principle of.

Origin of the Notion of Cause. Still another area where the precise meaning of cause figures in the controversy concerns the origin of the causal notion and the related questions of whether any causes are perceived directly or are immediately experienced or whether all instances of causal efficacy must be inferred. That things begin to be is an incontrovertible fact of experience, but there is no similar unanimity as to why man affirms causality as such. richard of saint-victor, for example, declares that the association of "caused" and "what begins to be" is not something directly experienced but is the fruit of a rational analysis of logical alternatives. Whatever is or can be, he points out, (1) either exists eternally or not, and (2) either exists of itself or not. Of the four possible ways of combining such disjunctive notions, only the idea of something "not eternal that exists of itself" is abhorrent to reason. "Whatever in time begins to be was once nothing," he argues. "But while it was nothing it had nothing whatsoever nor could it do anything at all. To neither itself nor to another could it give this, that it be. Otherwise it would give what it did not possess and do what it could not accomplish" (De Trin. 1.6). Richard, of course, is speaking of an idea of cause that would apply to God, and one may well grant that causa esse is not something experienced.

A. Chollet, who uses a somewhat similar argument to try to prove that the link between "what begins to be" and "cause" is a logically necessary one, insists that both notions are experienced inasmuch as consciousness reveals the fact of one's own causality. maine de biran had proposed this view previously on purely psychological grounds, arguing that the notion of causal force is not the result of a habit of expectancy, as D. hume claimed, but is the result of an intuition of self as a primal source of activity. It is only by means of an inference that man transfers to external objects this force felt within himself.

More recently A. E. Michotte conducted an ingenious series of experiments at the University of Louvain, which he contends disprove the theories of both Hume and Maine de Biran. For they seem to show that man is equipped by nature to see what Michotte calls the "causal effect" in much the same way as he sees locomotion. Any two perceptual objects (be they physical or phenomenal) that move in a certain way with respect to one another will produce the causal impression. If the stimulus conditions are right, the causal impression arises even when an occurrence is observed but once; if the conditions are not right, no amount of repetition will produce an impression of causality. Like the more familiar phiphenomenon or stroboscopic movement, this impression can be produced artificially when no actual physical causality obtains. It appears spontaneously under conditions far removed from any normal situation in which the specific effect might conceivably be attributed to learning. Michotte shows the laws governing the perception of such a "kinematic form" closely resemble the Gestalt laws for the perception of static forms. His experiments, he admits, are concerned only with the phenomenon referred to as causality, not with the epistemological question of how the illusion of causality is to be distinguished from its reality.

Jean Piaget, on the other hand, believes his independent studies on the evolution of the concept of physical causality in children confirms a modified form of Maine de Biran's thesis. In his view, the origin of the concept of causality does stem from an internal experience, although the child does not recognize it as interior at the outset because the distinction between self and the external world only gradually clarifies itself. Other confirmatory evidence suggests that there is a development in a child's perception of causality, although Michotte argues that this is the result of maturation rather than of learning.

Piaget and Michotte have debated the question publicly without settling their differences, seemingly because they are studying initially different types of efficient causality. From Piaget's description almost anything that answers the question "Why?" is regarded as a cause at some stage of a child's intellectual development. Some "causes" are subsequent to their "effects" in time and take the form of a moral obligation. It is the absolute necessity ascribed to the latter, Piaget suggests, that eventually comes to be associated with the physical causality characteristic of nature. Whether this be so or not, it does seem significant that children pass through an animistic stage during which they invest inanimate objects with the kind of causal behavior they seem to understand best, viz, that of free, morally responsible agents. Michotte's work, on the other hand, leaves little doubt that, at a very early age, man without conscious inference tends to group certain temporally successive events in a causal fashion. It is not clear, however, whether the basis is wholly instinctual or partially conditioned by learning.

All this strongly suggests there are at least two fundamentally distinct empirical sources for causality, one external, the other internal. The first, studied by Michotte, could be called mechanical causality since it concerns phenomenal objects that stand in certain temporal and spatial dynamic relationships to one another. It is this relationship that seems to have been extended and generalized in the form studied by Hume and, as a deterministic postulate antedating Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, was assumed to hold for the whole of inanimate creation. The other is the notion, studied by Piaget, that underlies the nonmechanical explanations of children involving the attribution of motivation and deliberate intention to inanimate objects. To the extent that these nonmechanical explanations seem to antedate mechanical ones in the gradual evolution of a child's notion of physical causality, it may not be rash to presume that this original notion stems from some primitive awareness of free will. These original notions may provide the basis for an elaborated and expanded conception of causality, in which each type in its expanded form bears traces of the alternate conception. From such initial data of experience, in fact, all the manifold types of efficient causes listed earlier may be constructed.

Conclusion. Philosophers may disagree on definitions, or challenge particular theories, or become puzzled as to how man knows causes; but few would deny the existence of causes or seriously suggest that all causal terminology be eliminated from ordinary language. L. N. tolstoi may well be right in his claim that "the impulse to seek causes is innate in the soul of man," for philosophers down the ages, with Richard of Saint-Victor, seem loathe to admit that something once non-existent can come to be with no originative link with any present or previously existing thing or event. The plethora of causal distinctions is itself indicative of this attitude. Man's very attempt to set up some kind of "principle of causation" represents reason's "demand for some deeper sort of inward connection between phenomena than their merely habitual time sequence seems to be" (W. James, 671).

See Also: god, proofs for the existence of; motion, first cause of.

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[a. b. wolter]