The Nature of Knowledge


Dr. Binswanger's View of Cause

There is a valid meaning of cause. It is not a scientific meaning, it is a philosophical one. Cause, meaning the explanation or reason for something, is a valid concept based on the fact that nothing happens without a reason, there are no miracles, and there is no magic. Why anything is or happens can be discovered and understood, rationally and objectively.

I suspect it is this non-scientific philosophical meaning of cause that is behind Dr. Binswanger's, Dr. Peikoff's, Harriman's, and even Rand's attempts to make cause a scientific principle. There are scientific principles which are the explanation for everything that is and everything that happens, but they are not principles of, "cause and effect."

"In the biological realm, the fundamental factor is natural selection. Natural selection causes and explains the whole "tree of life." It also causes and explains the adaptedness of the structure of organisms on every level of taxonomy; the structure of any particular species of flowering plant, of flowering plants in general, and of the entire plant kingdom. Whether one is seeking to explain the specific shape of the pistil in the rose, the fact that flowers have bright colors, or the presence of chlorophyll in plants, one will find that the contribution made to the plant's survival is the causal factor that forms the deepest part of that explanation. Note that natural selection is a necessary factor; without it, evolution would not have occurred." [Page 301]

Some Objectivists make survival a basic principle of life, purpose, and values. I am sure this is not what Rand had in mind when she pointed out that living organisms were the only entities that faced an alternative: to exist or not exit. [See the chapter, "Animal Life."] To support their view they attempt to use evolution as evidence. Unfortunately for Objectivists, natural selection does not pertain to individual organisms which it regularly sacrifices for the survival of species. Interestingly, evolution is not for the sake of survival of species either, since natural selection, if correct, regularly sacrifices species for the sake of new ones. It looks like, if evolution were correct, and natural selection were the method of it, survival would not be the objective at all, but the emergence of new species would be. The longest living species, if that were the objective, evolved long before most recently evolved and existing species, and are plants, not animals. There is something very wrong with these views. [All this is more fully discussed in the, "Natural Selection," section of the, "Evolution," chapter. The quotes in the following paragraph are from that section and chapter.]

Even if Dr. Binswanger's use of the word cause were correct, his statement that, "Natural selection causes and explains the whole 'tree of life,'" cannot possibly be true.

Natural selection cannot possibly be a cause, even in the sense of an explanation, because the evolutionary hypothesis requires something much more fundamental than any kind of selection. "The big question of evolution is not why some species survive and are selected, and others are not; the big question is where do new species come from. Natural selection has nothing to say about that. Natural selection does not explain how any of the so-called "survival-advantages" of species came to be. There is only one supposed explanation offered by evolutionists, mutation."

Though that hypothesis is extremely problematic, the point here is, it is not natural selection that is the explanation for evolution, but whatever kinds of mutations made new varieties of organisms with new survival-advantages possible to be selected from.

Dr. Binswanger makes a similar mistake about pleasure and pain with regard to "cause."

Pleasure and Pain

"...the conditions that fulfill bodily needs—eating nutritious food, gaining shelter and warth, drinking when dehydrated&omdash;happen to produce pleasure, while damaging physical conditions—a wound, starvation, breaking a limb—happen to bring pain. If the conscious experiences of pleasure and pain have no motivational power for the conscious animals, if the actions of the conscious animals are not affected by their experience of pleasure or pain, why are pleasure and pain correlated in this fashion with survival needs?

"Clearly, there has been a selection-pressure acting in evolution to align pleasure and pain with actions that promote or impair survival respectively. But that selection can occur only if pleasure and pain have effects on the animal's (or man's) behavior.

"This evolutionary explanation of pleasure from science of what we know by direct introspection: consciousness does something: it has causal efficacy." [Page 50]

No conscious experience "causes" anything, not even in animals. Whatever (and however) an animal consciously experiences things, including pain and pleasure, it does not cause the animal to do anything. What the animal does might be in response to what it consciously perceives, but the behavior is determined by its instinct, not by the perception.

There is also a mistake here about the nature of pain and pleasure. Generally pain and pleasure follow actions and are the consequence of behavior, not the motivators of it. Desires are the motivators. Pain, when extreme, might motivate action, but pleasure is generally not, except for humans who know what pleasure is, what things give pleasure, and have a desire for that pleasure.

Of course no one can know what any animals actual conscious experience is, or even if they experience pain and pleasure in the same way human beings do [which they almost certainly do} but we know in human beings neither pain, pleasure, or any other conscious experience "causes" any behavior. If it did, humans would not be volitional beings. In human beings, at least, only conscious choice determines behavior, and in animals, only instinct determines behavior in response to whatever the animals consciously experience.

These kinds of mistakes always result from attempting to make a philosophical case based on the supposed discoveries of science.

Dr. Binswanger's Emphasis On Cause

The identity of any existent is all its attributes. A things attributes do not "cause" a thing to be what it is, they are what it is. If cause must be invoked, it is a thing being what it is that is the cause of all its attributes and behavior. (First corollary of identity)

Since nothing exists in isolation and everything that exists has some relationship to everything else that exists, an existent's behavior will be caused by its own nature in relationship to all other existents, that is, its total metaphysical context. (Third corollary of identity)

But "cause" is not the right concept here. In fact the concept of "cause" defended by Binswanger, Peikoff, and Harriman is incorrect.

The True Meaning of Cause.

Cause, as in cause and effect, which is the concept defended by Binswanger, Peikoff, and Harriman is both incorrect and philosophically deceptive.

If by cause is meant, the reason for or explanation of an event, behavior, or state, the concept is a legitimate one. There is an explanation for everything such as how or why something is what it is or how it came to be, or why something happens. There is nothing wrong with calling those explanations "causes." In the sense that nothing happens spontaneously or without a reason or explanation, the concept of cause means that every event, behavior, or state can be rationally explained in terms of the facts of reality.

Here are some classes of things that might be included under the class of things called causes in this sense:

Consequences: Every action (including one's thoughts) has consequences. From the point of view of the consequences themselves, the thoughts, choices and actions responsible for those consequences may be thought of as "the causes" of those consequences.

[NOTE: This is also a good example of why the "same cause, same effect" notion is an impossibility. One might ask, "what did I do that made that happen," and discover some action one took that explains why the event in question occurred. But this leads to another question, "why did I choose to do that?" Perhaps the choice was made out of ignorance about something. Another question then arises, "why didn't I know that?" Obviously, every answer to every question will lead to a more remote question. One may stop at any point in such a chain of enquiry and declare the answer to the current question to be, "the cause." In reality nothing is ever a lone cause of anything.]

Explanations: To such questions as why did the accident occur? what started the fire? what made the car roll down the hill? why did the tire go flat? the answers to such questions may be called the causes. In most cases the answers will not be single things, but several contributing factors, all of which the events depend on, which brings us to dependencies.

Dependencies: In order for the light to be on, there must be a completed circuit from the source of power to the light which depends on a number of things being the case such as the fuse being good, the switch being on, and the light fixture being plugged in. If any of these are not as required, the light will not be on. If the light is not on any one of those not being so might be the "cause" of the light being off. If the light is on all of them being so will be the "cause" of the light being on, in the sense that it is the explanation for why the light is on. Of course the whole explanation would include the nature of light bulbs, power generation, power bills being paid, etc. All organisms and most processes and events depend on a number of things acting or being in a certain state to exist. Complex machines depend on a great many sub-systems and support mechanisms all working correctly for the machine to work at all. The failure of any one of the sub-systems or support mechanisms can be a cause of the machine's failure. All of them functioning correctly are the cause of the machine working.

Contingencies: Contingencies are similar to dependencies, but thought of differently. Most contingencies are expressed by "if" propositions. If this condition or state or dependency is met such'n'such will occur or be true. One special case of contingency or dependency in chemistry are catalysts. Some chemical reactions will not occur without the presence of a catalyst, though the catalyst is not itself part of the reaction. The reaction is contingent on the presence of the catalyst.

Principles: In a more fundamental way, it is not causes that any of the fundamental disciplines (philosophy and the sciences) look for, but principles. Since the correct way to understand cause is "an explanation of why things are as they are or how and why things happen as they do," an explanation that covers an entire field of phenomena, (perhaps within some limits), is real knowledge that can be applied to all cases within the scope of the principle. Most scientific principles could never be expressed as, "cause and effect," primarily because they are too complex.

For example, from the chapter, "Cause, Induction, and Math," section, "Observation, Identification, and Deduction,":

"Try explaining a tuned circuit in terms of cause and effect, or just the current in an AC circuit in terms of both resistance and impedance. The simplest law of electronics, E=IR (voltage equals the current times the resistance) defies the concept, "same cause, same effect," simply because there are three variables, and neither current or resistance causes a voltage; they only indicate what it will be if you know their values and already have a current. What is described is a specific absolute relationship, not any kind of cause and effect."

More Of Dr. Binswanger's View of Cause

"Thus, one needs principles because they provide the overview, the road map outlining the kind of consequences that follow from choosing one way or another. Principles identify cause-and-effect relationships. Acting in defiance of a valid principle means pretending that there can be causes without effects or effects without their causes. Both attempts are inherently self-defeating." [Page 307]

I use this paragraph at the beginning of my discussion of Dr. Binswanger's view of cause in the chapter, "Dr. Binswanger's View of Principles," to emphasize that principles are much more than statements of, "cause and effect," if they are ever that at all. Here, I'm more interested in his mistaken view of cause itself.

The word "cause" is used colloquially for anything that is the reason for something that happens or fails to happen. There is nothing wrong with that use. It is recognition of the fact that nothing happens without a reason or explanation. There are no miracles; there is no magic.

The description of actual physical entities is in terms of how they are perceived. It is actually perceived existents that all our knowledge is about, and it is those actual physical existents, as they are perceived, that mathematical and scientific descriptions (physics, chemistry, etc.) are of. They are principles derived from the perceived world, not the cause of the perceived world.

But principles are not about cause-and-effect relationships. Principles are those aspects of reality that all relevant existents and events must conform to. [See the chapter, "Principles."]

Perhaps, A Simpler View of Cause

The idea of 'cause' is simply this. Nothing happens without a reason, and everything that happens can be explained in terms of the nature of all the existents involved in any event and their total nature. That is the only possible correct meaning of cause. Cause is simply the explanation of why any particular event occurs, because no event occurs without an explainable reason. The idea of cause is a denial of the magical, mystical, and supernatural, and nothing more.

Back in the days when automobile tires had "tubes" (those rubber bladders that held the air), when a tire went flat, in order to repair the tire, the cause of the flat needed to be determined. The cause could be anything that allowed the air in the tube to escape: a puncture caused by glass, a nail, or any other sharp object in the road that was run over, or the "valve" being broken or defective, or the rubber of the tube itself being defective and broken down under wear. Any of these things might have been the "cause" of the tire going flat.

Cause is not some kind of mystic concept that explains everything, it is a concept that recognizes the nature of reality, that everything that happens is the product of every existent having the nature it has and doing what it must do in terms of its nature. The idea that cause (event A) always produces effect (event B), or that every existent in context A always behaves in manner B, is useless because there has never been more than one cause A and never more than one context A in the entire history of the world.

It is true that every existent has its unique nature that determines how it will behave in any context but no context is ever identical with any other. Everything that happens is caused, but the cause is all that pertains to each event, which is always a unique event and caused by unique circumstances.

The principles by which the events of the world can be understood are not, "cause and effect," but the principles that define the nature of existents and their relationships to each other. From the behavior of the chemical elements to the behavior of human beings, the cause of the behavior is determined by the nature of those existents and their context (circumstances), that is, their relationship to all other existents, which will almost certainly never be repeated, ever. "Same cause, same effect" is a fictional idea.