On Causality

Why understanding causality is so important


The task of the philosopher, as I and others have said previously, is twofold: to examine cause and effect, and to question the gods of society. Doing the one most often involves doing the other, and so it shall be here as well:

There is a great deal of confusion among many people about how causality functions. The great David Hume, in the first book of his A Treatise of Human Nature, was able to demonstrate that what we consider causality is in fact only two contiguous events that we have always seen come one after the other but that we can never rationally conclude are cause and effect. Nonetheless, in order to make sense of our universe we must take a leap of animal faith in maintaining that events are causally linked to each other.

The complex event of Oedipus killing Laius, by Paul-Joseph Blanc.

Under that assumption, we may state that there are many different types of causes, and that any given event has a myriad of causes behind it, so many, in fact, that it is impossible for any human being to see all of them at once. Causality can be thought of as a network so enormous that we can at any time only look at a very small part of it. But this does not mean that we should not try to see as many causes as possible in order to understand why an event occurs. Some convenient adjectives for describing different types of causes, which help us understand them, are: proximate, distant, immediate, initial, external, internal, indirect, predisposing, necessary, sufficient, main, and assisting/contributing causes; some causes are active agents, others are more passive circumstances. A classic example of the interaction of causes in producing an event is drawn from Greek mythology, namely Oedipus’ murder of Laius, the man who he will later find out was his father. When Oedipus and Laius meet on the road, the cause of the murder is not only Oedipus’ decision to kill Laius (an immediate and internal cause), but also, for example, the fact that Oedipus happens to have a weapon (assisting/contributing and external cause), Laius’ refusal to budge (proximate cause), and even, many years earlier, Laius’ decision to get rid of his infant son Oedipus out of fear of the prophecy that his son will one day kill him (distant and, to some extent, initiating cause, although the truly initiating cause would be something like the creation of the universe).

Another triumph from the eminently reasonable, rational, and not at all simple-minded or stultifying world of Facebook memes.

But a truly fatal mistake that many people make is that they confuse causality with blame, and, lest one think it only a matter for professional philosophers or academics, this mistake has deleterious practical consequences. In the accompanying pie chart, of which different versions have been widely shared on social media, someone thought him- or herself clever by saying that only rapists are the cause of rape. But this is absolute nonsense: it is undeniable that excessive consumption of alcohol and immodest dress are contributing causes to many rapes; this does not mean that it is the victim’s fault. It is perfectly possible and legitimate to discourage excessive drinking and to encourage proper attire (and any parent worth the name would do so, for both sons and daughters), while at the same time ascribing blame only to the perpetrator if a rape does occur. Similarly, if I display outer signs of Jewishness in an anti-Semitic neighborhood, then I add a contributing cause to the event of my being attacked, and it would consequently be in my interest not to do so. Nonetheless, the fault of the attack lies solely with those who attacked me. By treating such matters as zero-sum games, people are unnecessarily endangered, and – to return to the rape example – there is a strand of popularized feminism that victimizes the very people it is supposed to elevate, by assuming that responsible behavior is tantamount to submission (it is not; it would be far more salutary if both boys and girls were taught that they are so much more than their bodies that there is little need to show those bodies off). Identifying causes is one thing; ascribing blame is another – all philosophers, no matter what school they belong to, know this, but philosophical knowledge has a remarkable inability to trickle down to the general population. If we have identified causes correctly, then we can take proper counter-measures.

In an immeasurably complex world, it is extremely simple-minded to believe that causality works like a straight chain, or like a set of dominoes, one thing leading to another, which leads to the next, and so on. Rather, causality is a network of events with crisscrossing lines, like an endless weave of trillions of threads. But since many of these threads are not active, conscious, or deliberate agents, we do not ascribe blame (or reward) to all of those that have been involved in a particular event. Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol in a public space is foolish, but a person who does so does not thereby desire to be raped, which is why we should blame and prosecute only the deliberate agent of that event, namely the rapist.