Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Causation as Folk Science

I've found an interesting article on the role of causality in science written by John D. Norton (University of Pittsburgh). The abstract and conclusion, cited below, provide a good summary of his position. It seems to support my understanding that debates about the metaphysics of causation have largely given way to a pragmatism which is not at all incompatible with dependent origination. Indeed it is interesting to see that Norton talks about "recovering" causation from ontological inconclusiveness much as dependent origination "recovers" conventional reality from the same.

The full text is available at http://www.philosophersimprint.org/003004/

I deny that the world is fundamentally causal, deriving the skepticism on non-Humean grounds from our enduring failures to find a contingent, universal principle of causality that holds true of our science. I explain the prevalence and fertility of causal notions in science by arguing that a causal character for many sciences can be recovered, when they are restricted to appropriately hospitable domains. There they conform to a loose collection of causal notions that form a folk science of causation. This recovery of causation exploits the same generative power of reduction relations that allows us to recover gravity as a force from Einstein's general relativity and heat as a conserved fluid, the caloric, from modern thermal physics, when each theory is restricted to appropriate domains. Causes are real in science to the same degree as caloric and gravitational forces.

(John D. Norton, Causation as Folk Science, 2003, Ch.1)

On the one hand, causes play no fundamental role in our mature science. Those sciences are not manifestly about causation and they harbor no universally valid principle of causality. On the other, the actual practice of science is thoroughly permeated with causal talk: science is often glossed as the search for causes; and poor science or superstition is condemned because of its supposed failure to conform to a vaguely specified principle of causality. I have argued that we can have causes in the world of science in same way as we can retain the caloric. There is no caloric in the world; heat is not a material substance. However in many circumstances heat behaves just as if it were a material fluid and it can be very useful to think of heat this way. It is the same with cause and effect. At a fundamental level, there are no causes and effects in science and no overarching principle of causality. However in appropriately restricted domains our science tells us that the world behaves just as if it conformed to the sort of folk theory of causation outlined above. Finally I have suggested that we need not expect the exact same notion of cause to be invoked in each of these many domains. The proliferation of different account of the nature of causation suggests that there might be no single notion of causation, so that the best single account we can have is a loose folk theory, not all of whose elements will be accepted in every application.

(ibid, Ch.7)

Monday, February 27, 2006

Progress notes

Time for a quick review of where I am with all this. So far, I’ve glossed over the kind of Buddhism I’m interested in with particular reference to antiessentialism and alterity and pointed out some similarities with neo-pragmatism. I’ve said that dependent origination is the philosophical centrepiece of Buddhism which provides an alternative to essentialist causality and ontology. I then rattled through the socio-morphic origination and later significant development of the concept of causality in western philosophy. This exercise showed that, in Hume, the west had arguably “emptied out” the dominant essentialist conception of causation from a metaphysical point of view but that, nonetheless, it appears to remain as a central theoretical expedient in scientific practice. I would like to further understand how causality is actually treated by the scientific-community-at-large and whether it is generally either an explicit or tacit assumption going into the production and validation of theory. However, I’m not too sure how I can do this just yet. Also, I want to wrap up this rather cursory piece of historical analysis with a brief review of the philosophical climate in which Siddhartha Gautama formulated his teaching (which is the putative basis of Nāgārjuna’s exposition in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) and its relevance and/or dominance of today’s climate. The purpose of all this is to see what is actually being rejected by adopting dependent origination to avoid the unnecessary thrashing of a straw man.

Moving forward I want to explore the relevance of all of this to contemporary concerns. One of the first questions I have with respect to this is, Is naïve/psychological essentialism the salient condition of metaphysical essentialism or vice versa? In doing this I want to explore what is meant by naïve/psychological essentialism and my working hypothesis is that it equates to what Buddhism refers to as the “ignorance” which compounds the twelve links of samsāra and that, whilst being a successful cognitive expedient, its tendency for reification can lead to such problems as diminished cognitive flexibility, stereotyping, racism, fundamentalism, hopelessness and more. I want to see if the best elements of Buddhism and neo-pragmatism can or should be combined to address the alleged negative effects of essentialism.

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)

Aontic metaphysics

I've coined a term to describe the type of philosophy I'm promoting here: aontic. It's an attempt to convey a repudiation of the Being/Non-Being division which is generally assumed to be the starting point of metaphysics. I think anti-ontological is more or less the same thing but aontic is not necessarily implying a dialectically opposed doctrine nor simply a critique of ontology but can also be just a philosophy with a different starting point to the question of Being.

Buddhism is aontic in that it neither affirms nor denies the 'existence' of the self and the world. Its starting point is the process of experience in the context of human suffering. The relative absence of aontic philosophy in the western canon is what I think has often led to an erroneous interpretation of Buddhism as a form of nihilism, which is, of course, based on the tacit assumption that existence/non-existence is a fundamental category. However, the Buddhist metaphysical* concept of the dependent origination of phenomena is not coextensive with a categorisation of phenomena into existing/nonexisting.

* Is aontic metaphysics an oxymoron? Certainly if we accept the Aristotelian conception of metaphysics as the science of being qua being it is a contradiction in terms. However, we can also define metaphysics as the elucidation of general principles and assumptions and in this sense there is no problem.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Aristotelian causality

After Plato we get to the most elaborate treatment of causality in Ancient Greek thought - from Plato's student, Aristotle (384-322 BCE).

Aristotle famously distinguished four kinds of “cause”*: the material out of which things come; the form which things eventually have when they are perfected; that which brings about this completion, the efficient cause; and finally the purpose or function of such things, the final cause.

Being a quasi-empiricist, he opposed, even ridiculed, Plato's conception of transcendent Essences. As far as he was concerned the invisible realm of Essences was merely a hypothesis that could never be verified. However, following Plato, he developed a doctrine of categories which he believed defined the essence of an object. He argued that these essences could be identified on the basis of inductive arguments based on the observation of the phenomenal realm and that the phenomenal realm, despite always being in flux, moves towards specific ends. In this sense the phenomenal realm demonstrates a certain telos and as such physical matter is ordered according to its telos and substance. In other words, matter does not have the potential to become just anything but is ordered according to what it can, will and should become.

So while Plato contrasted the inherent structure of Essences with the flux of all phenomenal things, Aristotle taught that, from a condition of potentiality, each phenomenal thing necessarily strives toward achievement of a full reality in which its inherent essence is actualised. Thus, according to Aristotle, the phenomenal realm itself contains an inherent structure which allows observation from which logical principles can be deduced and induced. Enter science.

So the inherent potentiality and subsequent actuality of phenonema become the key characteristics of an Aristotelian notion of causality and the regularity of nature. To return to an example used in an earlier post, the phenomena of ice becoming water when heated is explained in Aristotelian terms as the actualisation of ice's potential to become water. The heat is the efficient cause of this change in state but unlike Platonic causality there is no fundamental transition from "iceness" to "waterness" because the "waterness" was already the potency of the block of ice itself. However, like Plato, Aristotle maintains that the cause of change must be assumed as an absolute necessity. Everything which undergoes change is made to do so necessarily by something. What undergoes change is what has a potency or capacity to do so and this actualization of mere potency, by definition, requires an actual agent; nothing which just has a capacity to undergo change can bring about that change by itself**. However, unlike Plato, the efficient cause is normally another phenomenal object, and not a transcendental Essence.

Finally, it's not completely clear to me what place necessity has in Aristotle's conception of causality. Given the identification of an effect on something with its inherent potency, then with any given efficient cause one can assume a necessary effect. Also, Aristotle's definition of knowledge makes use of a necessity condition by which that which is deemed knowledge is knowledge of that which necessarily holds in all cases. However, Aristotle's use of the inductive technique, and use of phrases such as "for the most part" when talking about the validity of the conclusions of deductive statements, seems at odds with a concept of unwavering necessity. For the moment at least, it seems to me with my limited reading that, with Aristotle, necessity became entangled with scientific generalisations as a mode of explanation and had left the domain of Ananke behind.

* The Greek word is aition which it seems is just whatever one can cite in answer to a “why?” question. So an aition is best thought of as an explanation or an explanatory factor. This understanding of "cause" is just what Nāgārjuna seems to mean by condition, yet Aristotle's exposition of causality doesn't seem to have entirely followed through in this rather pragmatic vein.

** This brings about an infinite regress which Aristotle "solves" by positing an "Uncaused Cause" which was later seen, by the likes of Aquinas, as another name for God. This infinfite regress, and the avoidance of Aristotelian-type solutions, is important to understanding Nāgārjuna's rejection of inherent causality.

Friday, February 10, 2006

More on the Orphic thread

I don't want to get too side-tracked by this but my research into the origins of causality has shined a light on some interesting connections between the Presocratics, Orphism and the Vedic tradition and the apparent ubiquity of mysticism. There is plenty of material, a flavour of which is copied below. Note the reference to rta which is where my reading on the origins of causal order in Indian philosophy seem to be leading. (Pirsig readers will no doubt recognise rta from LILA.)

In dealing with pre-Socratic thought, we constantly find ourselves in an atmosphere more akin to that of the Orient than to that of the West. As the late professor F. H. Smith pointed out, the apeiron of Anaximander is almost exactly the Hindu nirvikalpa, the nameless and formless, called Aditi, the unlimited, in the Rg Veda. Moreover, this Aditi which is nirvikalpa, is ordered by the immanent Rta or dharma, just as in Anaximander an immanent dike ensures that all things shall eventually return to the apeiron whence they came: "From which all things take their rise, and by necessity (PT: Ananke) they are destroyed into these; for all things render just atonement to one another for their injustice according to the due ordering of time."

There may even be an echo of the monism of the Upanishads in Empedocles, which, like many other features of his philosophy, seems to have been mediated through Orphism....A distinct tradition of mysticism runs through Orphism, Pythagoras, and Plato which is as unlike anything in Greek thought as it is like the Hindu mysticism of the Upanishads....Reality is not now what is perceived by the senses but what lies beyond them....Orphism and Hinduism have much in common. Just as the Brahmins kept the belief of the shamans or medicine men of the Vedas that man could become a god, but attempted to achieve this union not by drinking the intoxicating soma but by abstinence and ascetic practices so Orpheus purified the old Dionysiac religion and substituted asceticism for drunkenness. The aim of Orphism seems to be the liberation of the soul from the chains of the body, and this is to be achieved by asceticism but man must pass through many lives before he achieves final freedom. This is very far, indeed, from genuine Greek religion of any period, but almost exactly the predominant view of the Upanishads. Even the metaphors in which this conception is clothed are the stock Hindu and Buddhist metaphors - the wheel of life in the Upanishads appears as the "sorrowful weary wheel" of Orpheus.

(Hinduism and Buddhism in Greek Philosophy, A. N. Marlow, Philosophy East and West 4, no. 1, APRIL 1954)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Necessity and the Orphic creation myth

Going back to the Presocratics and their appeal to the force of Necessity I have read a little more and picked up a thread which leads back to the Orphic Mystery Cult. The Necessity that frequents the Presocratic fragments is actually Ananke/Adrasteia, partner of Khronos in the Orphic Creation Myth. I am aware of the danger of going too far and committing a genetic fallacy here but it is nonetheless interesting to think that any theories which incorporate a concept of necessity, such as the laws of physics, are indebted, in however small a measure, to the secret wisdom of a mystery cult.

A point I wish to make is that, looking back on these stories, we can easily imagine how one may have taken an abstract concept such as 'necessity' and 'personified' it yet we have little reason to favour that interpretation over its opposite, i.e., that the abstract concept of necessity was derived from the story of Ananke. I say this because I will be looking at the Indian origins of causation and it will be interesting to see if they have an exact equivalent of Ananke in their mythos.

This is a brief introduction to the Orphic creation myth, the full article is referenced by a url below.

In the beginning, there was Time, which the Greeks called Chronus or Khronos. This was a period called the Unaging Time, when nothing existed and nothing grew old; indeterminate and (almost) limitless time, which some people would call Aeon. Existing at the same time as Chronus was Adrasteia, or Ananke, meaning "Necessity".

Chronus and Adrasteia combined to create primordial Spirit and Matter, which were called Aether and Chaos. (Hesiod had referred to Aether as the upper atmosphere, where the air was clean and pure; he referred to Aether as male entity, while in the Orphic myth, Aether was seen as female being. Chaos was fathomless void, abyss or the yawning gap. With Hesiod, Chaos was a male primordial being, whereas in Orphic myth, the role had changed.) A third primordial being came out of Time and Necessity, Erebus – "Darkness". Chronus then combined with Aether, or possibly with Chaos and Aether, so the primeval beings caused mists to form and solidify into a Cosmic Egg.


Placeholder: Plato and Nāgārjuna

A couple of thoughts about Nāgārjuna and Plato. Plato believes that there are no causal powers in the merely apparent realm of things. Insofar as Plato's world of things corresponds to Nāgārjuna's conventional reality, this agrees with Nāgārjuna when he says that no powers of causation can be found in conventional reality, only correlation of phenomena. They would also agree that in conventional reality things have no inherent existence. There would be no argument that Essences cannot themselves be subject to causation because they are immutable and that only Essences can provide a generative cause of phenomena. Nor would they disagree that Being can only be ascribed to Essence.

Where they depart, and it is a fundamental departure, is that Nāgārjuna completely denies Plato's Essences and hence the possibility of generative causality and the question of Being/Non-Being. The basis of this denial will come later.

Platonic causality

Reading on into the Phaedo, we get to Socrates' exposition of causality.

There is nothing new, [Socrates] said, in what I am about to tell you; but only what I have been always and everywhere repeating in the previous discussion and on other occasions: I want to show you the nature of that cause which has occupied my thoughts, and I shall have to go back to those familiar words which are in the mouth of everyone, and first of all assume that there is an absolute beauty and goodness and greatness, and the like; grant me this, and I hope to be able to show you the nature of the cause, and to prove the immortality of the soul.

Cebes said: You may proceed at once with the proof, as I readily grant you this.

Well, he said, then I should like to know whether you agree with me in the next step; for I cannot help thinking that if there be anything beautiful other than absolute beauty, that can only be beautiful in as far as it partakes of absolute beauty - and this I should say of everything. Do you agree in this notion of the cause?

Yes, he said, I agree.

He proceeded: I know nothing and can understand nothing of any other of those wise causes which are alleged; and if a person says to me that the bloom of color, or form, or anything else of that sort is a source of beauty, I leave all that, which is only confusing to me, and simply and singly, and perhaps foolishly, hold and am assured in my own mind that nothing makes a thing beautiful but the presence and participation of beauty in whatever way or manner obtained; for as to the manner I am uncertain, but I stoutly contend that by beauty all beautiful things become beautiful. That appears to me to be the only safe answer that I can give, either to myself or to any other, and to that I cling, in the persuasion that I shall never be overthrown, and that I may safely answer to myself or any other that by beauty beautiful things become beautiful.

(Plato, Phaedo:100b-e)

So something is only insofar as it partakes of its Eidos i.e., Essence or Form. Put another way, the causes of the phenomena that appear to our senses are their Essences. This provides an account of generative, ontological, causality but what about the more mundane occurrences of cause and effect such as melting ice by applying heat?

There is a thing which you term heat, and another thing which you term cold?


But are they the same as fire and snow?

Most assuredly not.

Heat is not the same as fire, nor is cold the same as snow?


And yet you will surely admit that when snow, as before said, is under the influence of heat, they will not remain snow and heat; but at the advance of the heat the snow will either retire or perish?

Very true, he replied.

And the fire too at the advance of the cold will either retire or perish; and when the fire is under the influence of the cold, they will not remain, as before, fire and cold.

That is true, he said.

(Plato, Phaedo:103c-d)

So ice becomes water when its 'iceness' retires at the advance of heat and it presumably partakes in 'waterness' in its stead. Therefore, causality does not, and cannot, occur amongst Essences because they never change but their relationships between each other and the phenomena in which they are instantiated are defined such that causality is merely the appearance of a phenomenon's changing participation in the immutable Essences.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

More notes on causality in early western philosophy

The socio-morphic understanding of causation (and the consequent regularity of nature) as being the product of a divine system of retributive justice is found to some extent in the works of many of the Presocratics, such as Heraclitus (535-475 BCE)...

The Sun will not overstep his measures; if he does, the Erinyes [Furies], the handmaids of Justice, will find him out. (Diels, Fragmente, 94b)

...and Parmenides (b. 510 BCE), who states that Justice holds Being in its place by the "pronouned" force of Necessity:
"Necessity holds [being] fast in the chains of limit" (Fragment VIII 31)

But when we get to the likes of Anaximenes (of Miletus, 585 - 525 BCE) we see the emergence of somewhat depersonalised forces of necessity and causation drawn from more natural and observable connections, the state-changes of air in this case. This is in accordance with a generally recognised transition in Greek thinking from mythos to logos.

Finally we come to Plato, in which the principles of causation are fully expressed without reference to divine systems of retribution.

Socrates. ...for does not everything which comes into being, of necessity come into being through a cause?

Protarchus. Yes, certainly; for how can there be anything which has no cause?

Soc. And is not the agent the same as the cause in all except name; the agent and the cause may be rightly called one?

Pro. Very true.

Soc. And the same may be said of the patient, or effect; we shall find that they too differ, as I was saying, only in name - shall we not?

Pro. We shall.

Soc. The agent or cause always naturally leads, and the patient or effect naturally follows it?

Pro. Certainly.

Soc. Then the cause and what is subordinate to it in generation are not the same, but different?

Pro. True.

(Plato, Philebus:26)

Predictably, for Plato, causation applies to the creation of the world of sensible appearance whilst the world of Forms, being eternal and immutable, requires no causality for its existence, as we can see in the Timaeus.

Timaeus: First then, in my judgment, we must make a distinction and ask, What is that which always is and has no becoming; and what is that which is always becoming and never is? That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is. Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created.

(Plato, Timaeus:28a-29d)

Interestingly, in the Phaedo, Plato has Socrates distinguish between causes and conditions, as, if you recall, does Nāgārjuna. However, I'm not yet sure if the distinction is the same one. Certainly, there is a prima facie resemblance between Nāgārjuna's "conditions" and those described by Plato below. Of course, if the distinction is the same, Nāgārjuna rejects the "causes" that Plato seeks to elevate. I want to ponder the Phaedo in more depth but for now I want to "bookmark" the following:

There was a time when I thought that I understood the meaning of greater and less pretty well; and when I saw a great man standing by a little one I fancied that one was taller than the other by a head; or one horse would appear to be greater than another horse: and still more clearly did I seem to perceive that ten is two more than eight, and that two cubits are more than one, because two is twice one.

And what is now your notion of such matters? said Cebes.

I should be far enough from imagining, he replied, that I knew the cause of any of them, indeed I should, for I cannot satisfy myself that when one is added to one, the one to which the addition is made becomes two, or that the two units added together make two by reason of the addition. For I cannot understand how, when separated from the other, each of them was one and not two, and now, when they are brought together, the mere juxtaposition of them can be the cause of their becoming two: nor can I understand how the division of one is the way to make two; for then a different cause would produce the same effect-as in the former instance the addition and juxtaposition of one to one was the cause of two, in this the separation and subtraction of one from the other would be the cause.

Nor am I any longer satisfied that I understand the reason why one or anything else either is generated or destroyed or is at all, but I have in my mind some confused notion of another method, and can never admit this. Then I heard someone who had a book of Anaxagoras, as he said, out of which he read that mind was the disposer and cause of all, and I was quite delighted at the notion of this, which appeared admirable,and I said to myself: If mind is the disposer, mind will dispose all for the best, and put each particular in the best place; and I argued that if anyone desired to find out the cause of the generation or destruction or existence of anything, he must find out what state of being or suffering or doing was best for that thing, and therefore a man had only to consider the best for himself and others, and then he would also know the worse, for that the same science comprised both. And I rejoiced to think that I had found in Anaxagoras a teacher of the causes of existence such as I desired, and I imagined that he would tell me first whether the earth is flat or round; and then he would further explain the cause and the necessity of this, and would teach me the nature of the best and show that this was best; and if he said that the earth was in the centre, he would explain that this position was the best, and I should be satisfied if this were shown to me, and not want any other sort of cause. And I thought that I would then go and ask him about the sun and moon and stars, and that he would explain to me their comparative swiftness, and their returnings and various states, and how their several affections, active and passive, were all for the best. For I could not imagine that when he spoke of mind as the disposer of them, he would give any other account of their being as they are, except that this was best; and I thought when he had explained to me in detail the cause of each and the cause of all, he would go on to explain to me what was best for each and what was best for all. I had hopes which I would not have sold for much, and I seized the books and read them as fast as I could in my eagerness to know the better and the worse.

What hopes I had formed, and how grievously was I disappointed! As I proceeded, I found my philosopher altogether forsaking mind or any other principle of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities. I might compare him to a person who began by maintaining generally that mind is the cause of the actions of Socrates, but who, when he endeavored to explain the causes of my several actions in detail, went on to show that I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have ligaments which divide them, and the muscles are elastic, and they cover the bones, which have also a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them; and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture: that is what he would say.

He would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound, and air, and hearing, and he would assign ten thousand other causes of the same sort, forgetting to mention the true cause, which is that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence; for I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would have gone off to Megara or Boeotia - by the dog of Egypt they would, if they had been guided only by their own idea of what was best, and if I had not chosen as the better and nobler part, instead of playing truant and running away, to undergo any punishment which the State inflicts. There is surely a strange confusion of causes and conditions in all this. It may be said, indeed, that without bones and muscles and the other parts of the body I cannot execute my purposes. But to say that I do as I do because of them, and that this is the way in which mind acts, and not from the choice of the best, is a very careless and idle mode of speaking. I wonder that they cannot distinguish the cause from the condition, which the many, feeling about in the dark, are always mistaking and misnaming. And thus one man makes a vortex all round and steadies the earth by the heaven; another gives the air as a support to the earth, which is a sort of broad trough. Any power which in disposing them as they are disposes them for the best never enters into their minds, nor do they imagine that there is any superhuman strength in that; they rather expect to find another Atlas of the world who is stronger and more everlasting and more containing than the good is, and are clearly of opinion that the obligatory and containing power of the good is as nothing; and yet this is the principle which I would fain learn if anyone would teach me.

(Plato, Phaedo:96e-99d)

Monday, February 06, 2006

An oracle of Necessity: Western origins of causation

But where things have their origin, there too their passing away occurs according to necessity; for they pay recompense and penalty to one another for their recklessness, according to firmly established time.

(Anaximander, Hermann Diels "Fragments")

With respect to the Presocratics, the idea of natural laws emerged as an analogue of social laws. In what many consider to be the oldest surviving fragment of western written philosophy (see above) Anaximander (of Miletus, c. 610-546 BCE) talks of the necessity of the cessation of a thing's existence as recompense for its coming into being. What seems to be at stake here is a cosmic balance which, following its "reckless" disruption, is restored by necessity. Of just what this "necessity" comprises is not clear from the single Anaximander fragment above but a cursory glance at fragments from the Presocratic philosopher and mystic, Empedocles (of Acagras in Sicily, c. 492-432 BC), predictably, locates it within the authority of the gods:

There is an oracle of Necessity, ancient decree of the gods, eternal and sealed with broad oaths...

(Empedocles, Fragment 115)

These views are generally described as “socio-morphic” because they explain things like the origins and present state of the cosmos or the regular/periodic routine of nature as being the result of decrees and/or arrangements made by the gods. These divine decrees were predominantly conceived in the context of the regular arrangement of society or the edict of a law giver. In particular, social systems of retributive justice were applied to explain the phenomena of orderly nature.

More to follow.