Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The emptiness of causation in western metaphysics?

The Aristotelian conception of causality is a generative theory in that a specific cause generates a necessary effect by triggering an inherent potency. All effects are determined by the essence of the thing in which the effect occurs. So in consequence of their essence, entities follow certain laws of action and have no alternative to doing so.

This concept of causality as arising from the metaphysical essence of things dominated the west in one form or another until it was abandoned by Galileo (1564-1642) who reconceptualized causes and effects not as inherently determined properties of substances or things but as the consequence of the laws of motion. Thus, he disregarded the properties of the objects he was looking at and focussed instead on their positions as they varied across time. He connected cause and effect relationships only to the motions or states of things and consequently disconnected them from the putative essences of the things themselves.

In this model actions are conceptualised as necessary reactions to some previous action or motion or force. This position was stripped of its generative heritage even further by the Scottish empiricist David Hume (1711-1776) who originated the use of the term succession with respect to causality thereby heralding the beginning of a successionist theory of causation. Hume pointed out that we observe nothing but the regular succession of events and argued that the idea of a necessary connection between cause and effect is thus derived from habitually felt expectation and has no other foundation. Causes merely occur prior to and contiguous with effects. The relationship is not one between objects but between experiences. Causation to Hume, in other words, was no more than a predictive expedient.

Kant, Hegel, Whitehead and others attempted other metaphysical conceptions of causality but if I may be so bold as to say that, with Hume, we see causation effectively leaving the realm of significant metaphysical development whilst remaining woven into the development of scientific formulae and statistical probability, as well as into lay beliefs. If this is the case, then after over 2000 years of metaphysical development, causation effectively amounts to something like:

These give rise to those,
So these are called conditions.

Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (I:5)

Or in more words:

To assert the emptiness of causation is to accept the utility of our causal discourse and explanatory practice, but to resist the temptation to see these as grounded in reference to causal powers or as demanding such grounding. Dependent origination simply is the explicability and coherence of the universe. Its emptiness is the fact that there is no more to it than that.

(Garfield, Dependent Arising and the Emptiness of Emptiness, Ch.2)

1 comment:

alice said...

Hello Paul,

I was steered here by Ian of Psybertron fame. We have been having discussions about consciousness lately. And I have been, for several years now, in the process of finding out as much as I can about western philosophy. There are so many isms and ologies, I have a hard time keeping things straight, but I think it's worth the effort because of the history it reveals.

"Dependent origination simply is the explicability and coherence of the universe. Its emptiness is the fact that there is no more to it than that."

I like this very much. I personally don't think that there is anything more to anything than that. And I don't find the thought frightening, depressing or empty.