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The Search After Causes

123. PHILOSOPHY is the generalization of Research. What is sought ? The causes of visible appearances ; not the appearances themselves, for they are already found. On this -point there is unanimity. Yet observe the contradiction ! Many philosophers, metaphysical and positive, declare that causes cannot be known. If beyond knowledge, why then are they sought ? Comte is less paradoxical than those metaphysicians who hold causes to be inscrutable ; for he consistently declares that the search after a cause is frivolous because futile ; they admit it to be futile, yet pronounce it to be man's highest prerogative.

124. Here, as in so many other cases, the initial defect is in the presentation of the problem. The terms are used in fluctuating senses, the conclusions fluctuate with them. There has been a general outcry against Comte's condemnation of the search after causes ; and it has been in so far merited that his polemic is rather against the term and its connotations than against the idea of Cause. In practice he is found introducing Law in the place of Cause ; and what philosophers denote by Cause is simply what he denotes by Law: What many of them connote both by Cause and Law he rejects, and in this rejection he is supported by all scientific teachers. There is a metempirical conception of Law which is the precise equivalent of the metempirical conception of Cause. There is also an empirical conception of Cause which is the precise equivalent of Law. We need not therefore adopt Comte's rejection of a term which is familiar, and may be made precise ; we have only to make ourselves fully aware of its metempirical connotations, and eliminate them, as we eliminate all metempirical elements.

125. Phenomena present themselves in Experience as dependent on other phenomena which precede and coexist with them, — varying as these vary, being their function (to speak mathematically). We detach these dependencies and connections, and call the abstractions causes. Obviously the search after these is strictly scientific ; Science has no other object. But metempirical philosophers have been dissatisfied with such results. Seeking for revelations of Existence which transcend the concrete revelations of Experience, they presuppose a mysterious something over and above the mere relation of dependence, a Power by which the connection is affected (the Efficient Cause), or a Purpose for which it was effected (the Final Cause). It is this conception of a transcendental Causality, efficient and final, which Comte condemns, and which must be condemned by all who recognize the fault against rational Method which transforms knowable dependencies into unknowable entities. I believe, how-ever, that if we eliminate the metempirical elements from the conception of efficient causes, the search after efficient causes is not only justifiable, but may be successful.

126. The metaphysician who discards the Method of Science, and believes in the possibility of our knowing the Supra-sensible, will of course demur to such an elimination. His constant complaint against our Method is that its field of vision is too narrow. " Granting all you claim," he says, "you can only expound the How, and must ever remain silent respecting the Why. A miser-able restriction ! The impatience of the soul to apprehend the Why has urged in all past ages, and in all ages to come will urge men to the noble study of Philosophy. It is this which inspires the divine desire to penetrate the secrets of the plan divine. It is restless until the causes have been found, and however baffled, it will not be appeased by an exposition of mere laws of connection and dependence. To know that the facts are thus or thus is useful, and by such knowledge Science subserves the uses of mankind. But utility is not Philosophy; and is far below the sublime aspiration of knowing why the facts are thus or thus, and knowing that the course of Nature must be what it is, and why it must be so."

A sublime aspiration, it may be, but it is only an aspiration, — a mere breath. This is evident when we come to learn the genesis of knowledge and its limitations. Then we see the Why resolved into the How ; then we see that it is a verbal distinction, not a real distinction ; and that it is only by an artifice that Cause can be separated from Conditions.

127. The investigation of any phenomenon, or group of phenomena, may be likened to the exploration of the sources of a river. The wanderer follows the river from the sea through valleys and watercourses till it is lost in a lake. The exploring mind is unsatisfied, and asks, Whence the lake ? From streams that have their origin in rivulets, and these rivulets in water-threads oozing from the mountain-side. He ascends the steep sides, guided by the trickling brightness, till finally he arrives at the vast snow-fields of the summit. There, where earth ceases, he stands thrilled, awed, perplexed. Before him lies the wide expanse of snow, above him the wider sweep of sky. All traces of the river have vanished, and this mystery fronts him. The restless craving for a cause, or origin, is unappeased. The snow was' the origin of the river, but whence the snow ? It must have a cause. It is not an origin, but a landing-place. The river was only the snow fluent. Onwards the exploring mind proceeds, following the snow into the clouds, where it appears as delicate vesicles of water enclosing air. This water, whence ? It rose in exhalations from the sea. The explorer thus returns to his point of departure. And whence the sea ? It is not the origin of the water, since it visibly receives the water from the land. Thus the circle of movement runs. Further examination discloses that every single particle of water persists unchanged through all its changing fellowships with other particles, and with changing Heat, Air, Salts, etc., as it successively forms an integer of rivulet and river, cloud and snow. It is these particles which alone are real. Rivulet or river, cloud or snow, is an abstraction,— a group of events. The form of the river, and its course through the land, give it individuality as a phenomenon ; but these are obviously determined by the conjunture of external events. Its individuality at each stage expresses these conjunctures; and that which was a babbling brook is now a navigable river only by the co-operation of new conjunctures ; the thread of light, the cloud of spray, the floating mist and leaping cataract, the snow-flake and the breaker, are embodied histories. Each successive form is a succession of events, each event having been determined by some prior group. This is the circulation of Cause. Causation is immanent Change.

128. Throughout these transformations there has been something persistent, something that has not changed, namely, the Existence we call Substance ; and it is this persistent Value whose changing Positions have determined the events. If the changes are causes, the changed is substance. Cause and Substance, Force and Matter, are the indissoluble elements of every phenomenon.

129. Corresponding with these two divisions of the one Existence there are two lines of inquiry. Either we seek to know what is, or how it came to be what it is: the thing, or its history; Ontology or Ontogeny. The first goal is reached when we have defined the thing, and described the phenomenon under those aspects which it presents to Sense, or Intuition ; with the implied under-standing that under similar conditions it will present these to all minds. The second goal is reached when we have described the antecedent and coexistent conditions which determine the phenomenon to be what it is ; and since each of these conditions is itself a phenomenon, having its history therefore, and being a complex of events, the pursuit must be interminable if not arbitrarily limited. This arbitrariness in the definition of Cause will have to be invoked by and by ; enough for the present to have indicated it.

130. We conclude, then, that a thing is what it appears. It is the expression of a particular history of events, the group of conditions which are said to deter-mine it. We may abstract these conditions, and consider each of them by itself, or two or more together ; but in this abstraction the thing disappears, and we have only one or more of its causes. Again, we may consider the whole group of conditions, and then the thing reappears as the expression of this totality. There is nothing in the object that is not in the conditions, unless we artifically eliminate the conditional substance ; there is nothing in the conditions — thus defined — that is not in the object. Our logical separation of a Thing from its Relations is only possible in so far as we can severally consider any one aspect of a Thing, without considering the Thing as a complex.

131. The search for a cause, origin, or history is a speculative instinct prompted by our needs and cherished by constant experience of events depending on other events.* But this instinct, like most other instincts, is sometimes misleading, and is peculiarly so in Philosophy, where it manifests itself as a craving for double sight : dissatisfied with a vision of what the thing is, we desire to know what it is not and cannot be, — and we are under the strange hallucination that this imaginary state, this aspect which the thing does not and cannot present to us, is more real and enduring than the fleeting phenomenal aspect which alone it can present to us ! Not content with a vision of the group of relations actually existing, and of those which preceded it, Speculation craves for a vision of the thing, or event, in itself,—i.e. unrelated : in other words, as it does not and cannot exist.


132. Our restless impatience, dissatisfied with the How, demands a Why, and seeks a cause of the cause. We see that oxygen unites with hydrogen, the product being water. This is how water is formed ; but this is not enough for us, and we ask, Why ? And the question is answered when the chemist shows how certain conditions of motion, pressure, and temperature determine the result, — how the lass of a given amount of heat from the two gases causes their condensation into water. The Why or How is simply the conditions under which the union takes place, or (as it is otherwise phrased) the conditions by which the effect is produced, caused. When these conditions are enumerated, the Why is given. There is no other Why in operation ; — unless indeed we choose to consider as a part of the operant conditions any or all of the antecedent conditions which determine these. But as this would involve a regress of causation through the whole past history of the Cosmos, no one thinks of such an extension of the inquiry.

133. But while the positive thinker affixes these limits, and accepts the immediate conditions as the causal conditions, accepting these as full explanation of the Why,— since it is an explanation of the How, the metaphysical thinker demands that the How of the How, or the Why of the How, should be explained and is not satisfied by a regress to antecedent conditions ; on the contrary, he demands a transcendental condition. Over and above those sensible conditions, which the physicist assigns, he believes there is an undefinable Something, named Power, which causes the oxygen to unite with hydrogen, — a something which gives these conditions their efficiency. This Power he either conceives to be external to the substances, or immanent in them ; in the one case he regards it as the action of the Deity, operating on and through the gases ; in the other case as the action of a Force, — Affinity ; in both cases the Power is assumed to be the efficient Agent; and this Agent some thinkers believe to be knowable through an Intuition not dependent upon Experience ; other thinkers declare to be unknowable, though undeniable.

134. The objection to both these views is that the assumed Power is wholly without a basis in sensible Experience, and must be excluded from the province of Research, to be relegated to the province of the Supra-sensible, which demands a special organ, and has no community with positive knowledge. Nor is this all. Granting the presence of such an Agent, it would be powerless in the absence of the substantial ,conditions, and would vary in its effect with every variation of these conditions. Since, therefore, the knowable effect depends on and varies with the known conditions, and since, moreover, nothing is given in Experience except the fact of the union, and the fact of the conditions, it is clear that the introduction of a Power, over and above these, is superfluous. If any one ask, Why is the planetary path elliptical ? he is answered when the conditions are enumerated which determine that path to be elliptical, and not otherwise. If this How be further questioned, and a Why be sought, it again resolves itself into another How, and so on in endless regress of conditions, unfolding dependencies on dependencies, till the final pause : " This is so because Nature is so, or because God has willed it so."

135. No one asks for a Why in mathematics ; to show the How, to demonstrate the proposition, is enough. No one asks why a circle has every point of its circumference equidistant from the centre, or why all its radii must be equal. But one may ask why it is impossible to draw such a circle on paper ; and the question is answered by showing how from the necessary unevenness of the surface there must be unevenness in the tracing. So long as the circle was ideal it was perfect, for it depended solely on ideal conditions; directly it was dependent on real conditions it expressed those and their departures from the ideal definition. The ideal conditions are unalterable for they are self-contained ; the real conditions are variable for they have varying dependencies on others.

136. Hence the distinction between the How and the Why expresses something like the distinction between a consideration of the object and a consideration of its history ; and as the object is truly its embodied history,—it being simply the group of Relations, — the How and the Why are essentially one.


137. I said there was a conception of Cause which was the precise equivalent of the 'conception of Law, whether the empirical or the metempirical point of view be taken ; Comte's rejection of the term Cause and his substitution of Law, therefore, could only be justified on the ground of his understanding the one term in its met-empirical, and the other in its empirical sense.

138. The metempirical conception 'of Law is that phenomena are regulated, determined by certain active Agencies, very much in the manner of passive bodies coerced to obey external forces. The Laws of Nature are regarded in the light of Statutes. These statutes men are said occasionaly to violate ; and God is supposed to suspend their action in Miracles. Even minds of a less theological leaning regard the Laws of Nature as Powers attendant on, or immanent in, Matter.

139. The empirical conception of Law is that of an abstraction of observed dependencies. It is thus another term for Cause, another aspect of a Fact. It is a term for Cause when it expresses the process and the conditions of a change, — e. g. the law of Gravitation. It is a term for Fact .when it expresses these conditions solely, without reference to change, — e. g. the fact of Gravitation, the fact that air has weight, or that pressure in a fluid is propagated equally in all directions. Since facts and causes are innumerable, and are of various degrees of importance and frequency, it is useful to have a term which designates those facts or causes which have a special importance ; the term selected has been Law.

140. Had the essential identity of Law, Cause, and Fact been duly apprehended, much misty speculation would have been dissipated. Men would have recognized that by Law or Cause, they were only expressing what had been observed, or inferred as Fact. The new term implied no addition to the old. But unhappily the tendency to suppose that a distinction in terms denotes a corresponding distinction in things early led men to sup-pose that Law really denoted something over and above Fact. A Law of Nature is not an Agent nor an Agency by which substances are coerced, but an abstract expression of the series of positions which substances assume under given conditions. It is not a creator of the phenomena, it is their formula. It does not precede and coerce them, it is evolved by them. No positive biologist imagines that the Laws of Life determine animal and vegetal forms ; the metempirical biologist imagines this, and believes in the objective existence of Types. What Types are in Biology, Laws are in Philosophy : ideal constructions expressing the observed uniformities among phenomena. But these uniformities do not depend on some agency apart from the constituent integers of the phenomena, they are simply the expression of the Coexistent Values.

141. That Law and Cause are the same, appears directly we restore the concretes from which they are abstracted. Thus the law of gravitation is the cause of gravitation, whether regarded as immanent or external, i. e. as the gravitating process of the bodies in motion towards each other, or as the external pressures moving the bodies. The cause of planetary motion — or its law may be described as the motion determined by tangential and centripetal motions, or as the motion due to the sun's position ; in the one case the cause is regarded in its immanence, in the other case in its externality.

When thus we eliminate from the conception of Cause all its metempirical connotations, it becomes identical with the empirical conception of Law ; and the search after causes — nay, after efficient causes'— is strictly philosophical.

( Originally Published 1874 )

Problems of Life and Mind:
The Reality Of Abstractions

Ideal Construction In Science

What Are Laws Of Nature?

The Use And Abuse Of Hypothesis

The Passage From The Abstract To The Concrete

Ideal Construction In Metaphysics

The Search After Causes

Intuition And Demonstration

Axioms And Their Validity

Necessary Truths

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