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Causality as given in observation and Causality as a corollary to identity


Causality as Given in Observation

By Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.



I was having a discussion about causality recently with some long-term Objectivists, and I wasn’t able to get across the idea that causality is given in observation (perception and introspection for consciousness). Causality is a concept designating that an entity will act a certain way under certain circumstances, but this is directly observed. We observe a dog barking, wood burning, a ball rolling, a child speaking, a cat running, and a tree waving in the breeze, changing one’s mind about an idea, imagining a better place, thinking, directing one’s consciousness, etc.. All of these particular actions of particular entities is directly observed, so the information for the concept of “causality” is given in observation. What needs to be done after making these observations is to abstract out the entity from the background by focusing on it, and then doing an abstraction from that abstraction to have concepts of action. The widest concept for specific things observed is “identity” and “entity” and the widest abstraction we have for particular actions of particular entities is “causality.” The connection between an entity and its action is that the concept of the action is an abstraction from an abstraction – it is not just an association of entity to action, but rather the entity is abstracted and conceptualized and then its action is abstracted and conceptualized. So, the information is given in observation, but the abstracting and conceptualizing must be done volitionally based on that information given in observation. This is what I mean when I say that causality is given in observation. Like the axioms, the raw data is given in observation, and then the abstracting must be done volitionally. As I have mentioned before, identity and entity designates “it is”, while causality abstracted from identity designates “it acts”. These abstractions are done from observations of particular entities acting in particular manners, which are directly observed.

Some people seem to think that one has to get to the particular aspect of the entity that leads to the conclusion that it acts that way under those circumstance due to that particular factual nature of the entity. An example would be that water boils at that temperature due to the hydrogen bonds breaking which transforms water (a liquid) into water vapor (a gas). But while this is true, it is an advanced scientific – special science’s – understanding of why water boils, and comes only after one understands that water boils due to the fact that it is water. One has to grasp that an entity acts the way it does due to that fact that it is what it is, before one can abstract further and get to the more specific cause of that particular action, and the philosophical knowledge that an entity acts due to what it is precedes the scientific knowledge. What I’m claiming is that one observes that it is water directly and observes that it boils directly, and that the boiling (action) is abstracted from the water (entity), leading to cause and effect – water is the cause (a fact about water) leads it to act that way (boiling) under those conditions (sufficient heat).


Causation as a Corollary to Identity

By Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

In OPAR (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand), Dr. Peikoff talks about causation as a corollary to the axiom of identity. I think that needs to be unpacked a bit, as I have noticed that students of Objectivism don’t quite understand the Objectivist position on causation. All of the axioms are given in perception. That is, all one has to do is to make an observation of existence and do an abstraction and one will have the axioms and their corollaries. The axiom of identity is gained by observing that existence is made of certain specific existents that are given in perception. We observe a rock, a cat, a dog, a glass, a tree, a cloud, etc. No conceptualization or thinking is required to observe these things – all one has to do is to observe. The senses are axiomatic in this manner – they do not require any conceptual input and we have no control over how we see things volitionally with our senses. Hence they are automatic and considered to be correct and not needing of any conceptual fine tuning. So we observe these entities or existents and we form the implicit concept of “identity” or “It is something specific.” But we also notice something else that is immediate after grasping identity – those specific things act in specific manners – the rock rolls down the hill, the cat meows, the dog runs, the glass breaks when dropped, the tree waves in the breeze, the clouds move across the sky. In other words, what we notice is that we live in a dynamic universe – that the entities we observe are not static and unchanging, but rather do change, and that this is a fundamental aspect of existence. Hence the need for a corollary to identity – one that conceptualizes that things act. This concept is “causation” it is the widest abstraction we have for the fact that entities are capable of changing or acting. This abstraction of causation is an abstraction from the concept of “identity” – it is an abstraction from an abstraction. We observe the dog (identity) and that it is barking (causation), barking is something a dog does. The concept of “causation” covers any action or change that an entity does or is capable of doing, past present and future. It is the widest abstraction we have for the dynamism of existence. And like the axioms, their corollaries are validated via direct observation – we observe entities acting; we observe entities, their attributes, and their actions. That which is given in perception does not require proof, because we directly observe it – in this sense, the seeing is the proof – that a dog barks or a cat meows is not something that has to be proven, because it is observed. And under the Objectivist understanding of causation, the entity acting is the cause and its action is the effect – the dog is the cause of his barking, the glass (what the glass is) is the cause of it shattering when dropped.

Some students of Objectivism that have a prior conception of causation generally have difficulties with this. Usually because they take causation to mean one entity acting on another and the second entity doing something. But Objectivism has a different approach. The one entity acting on another is Aristotle’s efficient causation, and it is the last remaining conception of causation from Aristotle in common usage today. But, as we have seen, causation is not primarily about interactions, it is about entities acting and this is directly observed that causation stems from identity. Some students using the efficient causation conception of causation have difficulties with volition in man, wondering what causes it. They are looking for something acting on man (internal or externally) that leads to the action of directing one’s own consciousness. However, no such causative agent is required under the Objectivist understanding of causation. Directing one’s own mind is an action one observes oneself doing. Just as one observes oneself walking, one can introspectively observe oneself directing oneself. And just as for the observing the dog barking, no proof is required in observing oneself directing one’s own consciousness. Observing oneself making choices and directing one’s own mind is proof enough, since all observation are observations about some aspect of existence. Hence there is no conflict between the Objectivist understanding of causation and free will in man – directing one’s own consciousness is something a human beings does. Or to put it another way, the individual is the cause of the action of directing one’s own consciousness.


In summation, the concept of “identity” designates “it is”, while the concept of “causation” designates “it acts.” “It acts” is a causative statement – it (cause) acts (effect). And if one re-integrates one’s understanding of this formulation and understanding of causation, then cause and effect are given in perception insofar as we observe the entity doing something or acting and changing.


In short, an entity acts the way it does due to the fact that it is what it is. Or a particular entity acts in a particular manner in a particular circumstance. When one conceptualizes this observation, one gets the concept of causality.


Another way of putting the above is in terms of the axioms. In Objectivism, the axioms and causality as a corollary can be written in one sentence:

There is something there that I am aware of -- and it is doing something.

There is (existence) something there (identity) that I am aware of (consciousness) -- and it is doing something (causation).


Also see an important application of the corollary of causation at my link to an essay on Induction, which shows that scientific induction, to be valid, must be an integration of causes.


As a bonus, you can read my brief essay on Aristotle's proposed Final Cause as it relates to various living entities: No Purpose in a Pea.

Added 06/19/2020

I raised an interesting question around 06/19/2020 and that was are the axioms caused, does consciousness have a cause. I was being rationalistic, but have decided to present my reasoning on that topic below:

Does Consciousness Have a Cause?

This is going to seem like a very strange question, given that we are aware of existence via our means of awareness, so without our senses and our nervous system and our brain we would not be conscious, in the human sense. However, contrary to the way one of my FB friends put it, these senses and nerves and brains are not the cause of consciousness, and I say that because consciousness is an axiom, and like the other axioms, it is fundamental. Existence does not have a cause; identity does not have a cause, consciousness does not have a cause -- there wasn't anything that brought these fundamental facts of reality into existence. Consciousness is not your eyes your ears your fingertips, nor the signals they put out when activated by stimulae, it is what it is -- your awareness of existence. And even if we found out some day what parts of being human make our consciousness possible biologically, I wouldn't put that as a cause; and neither is it being what it is is a cause -- consciousness exists, but it is not made of something or brought into being by something -- it is a fundamental fact. 

Otherwise, I don't think you could say that consciousness is axiomatic -- that which has to be taken as a fundamental fact that one cannot get beneath; for even if we found out you must have this part of the brain to be conscious, that would be a higher-level concept dependent upon the axiomatic concept of consciousness. And it would not be a cause of consciousness any more than an electron is the cause of identity. 

I was mistaken above: I concluded that I was thinking about the issue incorrectly while confusing an axiomatic concept, which one cannot get beneath, with the reality of the fact that an entity with a consciousness (an animal) must be born with that capacity to be aware of existence via its means of awareness, and in that sense (being born) is the cause of consciousness. Existence, as a whole, has no cause, but a given existent does, in the sense that ash comes from burning wood, so the particulars do have a cause; likewise for identity, a given identity of an entity has a cause in that it comes to be and can change (according to its identity) into something which has a different identity (wood to ash); and likewise a given living animal has a cause of consciousness in being born with that capacity to be aware of existence. 

Let me try to clarify what I think was my mistake: Existence, as such, all of it as one, has no cause; but a particular thing that exists does have a cause -- my computer was built, a rock broke off from a bolder. Likewise, a particular thing has an identity -- it is what it is, but it's identity can change -- that is, wood can burn into ash, and each is what it is. Likewise, a particular consciousness does not exist unless an animal is born with a means of awareness; and when it dies, it no longer exists, is no longer what it was, and is not conscious any longer.