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Cause, Determinism, And Conscious Choice
Cause And Determinism

If everything is determined, if nothing happens without a cause, how can there be conscious choice?

This question is considered by many philosophers to be the most difficult question of philosophy. It is not really that difficult, however. It has been intentionally made difficult by most philosophers as a means of putting over various ideologies, most of which are either mystical (religion and so-called Eastern philosophies), or social/political ideologies.

Most philosophical discussions of volition (mistakenly referred to by the loaded term "free will,") center on two views called compatibilism and incompatibilism which are both related to what is called causal determination.

Causal determinism assumes that everything is determined by natural causes and everything that has ever happened or ever will is, "caused," and therefore could not and cannot ever be other than what it is. It is relative to this view of causal determination that compatibilism and incompatibilism pertain. Compatibilism is the view that volition is compatible with causal determinism; incompatibilism is the view that volition is incompatible with causal determinism. The argument for incompatibilism is: if everything is determined that necessarily includes all human action which means conscious choice (volition) is not possible. The argument for compatibilism is: if there is conscious choice (volition) everything cannot be causally determined. It is this view that is mistaken for a denial of physical cause and the reason for the whole sorry debate.

The Irrational

All mistaken reasoning is based on one or both of two fundamental mistakes: 1. reasoning without evidence or 2. reasoning that ignores or denies evidence. Both those kinds of, "reasoning," are a misuse of the rational faculty. They are irrational.

The two kinds of evidence available for reasoning about determinism and volition are 1. the physical world human beings are directly conscious of, and, 2. human consciousness of that physical world. It is, in fact, the second kind of evidence that philosophy evades in all discussions of volition. There is no honest question about volition. It is obvious that human beings can do nothing without consciously choosing to do it. It is not volition that needs doubting, it is whether the physical existence we are conscious of is causally determined.

There are two fundamental requirements for knowledge: 1. that there be something that can be known, and, 2. that human beings are capable of knowing it. Our own consciousness of existence and ability to use language and form concepts that identify what we are conscious of fulfills the second requirement of knowledge. The first requirement is only fulfilled if that which we are conscious of (i.e. the known) has a nature that can be known. To be knowable, physical existence must have a nature that is not subject to the inexplicable or ineffable. To be knowable, the nature of reality must be complete and unconditional, never other than what it is, and not contingent on anything else.

In practical terms, the physical sciences and the application of the principles discovered by those sciences to technology are the irrefutable evidence that knowledge of physical existence is possible. The only question is what is the relationship between the known physical existence and the consciousness that knows it?


The supposed problem of volition is sometimes described this way: If everything in physical existence is caused and no event or entity can be other than what it is but conscious volition is not caused, then consciousness that makes volition both possible and necessary cannot be physical. This is obviously true, but philosophers have made the mistake of assuming that means there is more than one kind of existence: physical existence (referred to as natural or ontological existence) and a made-up concept of some mystical non-physical super-natural existence. But there is no evidence whatsoever for this so-called other kind of existence.

There is only one kind of existence, one natural ontological existence. That natural existence is all there is and has the nature it has independently of whether any human being is conscious of, or has any knowledge of, that existence or its nature. The one natural existence includes everything that exists, every entity there is, with whatever attributes those entities have. It includes every physical entity, every living organism, every conscious organism, and all human beings with rational volitional consciousness.

There is absolutely no reason to suppose that life, consciousness, or volition are different kinds of existence, because they are only attributes of existence, like any of the physical attributes. The entire mistake is made because philosophy has completely failed to describe the true nature of cause.

Scientific Principles

Everything has a cause. It means nothing happens fortuitously or capriciously, without explanation. It means nothing happens by magic or miraculously. Nothing, "appears out of thin air," or happens because of some inexplicable ineffable reason. Nothing exists "ex nihilo," (out of nothing) and no event is serendipitous.

Unfortunately, the concept of cause has come to mean something more than an explanation of what is and what happens and is described as some kind of motivating or initiating force as though a, "cause," is what makes something happen or exist. If that were what, "cause," is, there would be no such thing as cause. With the exception of animal and human behavior, nothing, "makes," anything happen or exist. The real cause of all events is the nature of the things that act and are those events.

[NOTE: The origin of this idea of cause being some kind of efficient or motivating force is a hold-over from religion and mystic philosophies, which attribute everything to gods, spirits or mystical forces. It is a kind of animism or anthropomorphism, borrowing the idea from the fact the animals and human beings make things and make things happen. It is not philosophy but a superstitious substitution for reason.]

The explanation for all physical phenomena discovered by the physical sciences are principles by which the nature and behavior of physical entities are understood. Those principle are sometimes called laws, which is an unfortunate misunderstanding of what scientific principles are. They are called laws, because all physical phenomena conform to those principles, but they do not conform to them because those principles are some kind of constraints that make them conform to them. The principles of science do not make anything happen, they only describe what happens and explain the nature of entities and the relationships between them that are the reason for their behavior.

Scientific principles only describe what things are and what they do, not why they are what the are or do what they do. The question why is an unwarranted question based on an assumption of some mystical view of cause.

The mistaken view of cause has produced some very bad ideas about cause that have plagued both science and philosophy to this day.

What Cause Is Not

The wrong view of cause comes in several flavors. The following are very common.

Cause And Affect—This perversion of the concept of cause comes from Hume, who formulated it as, "the same cause always produces the same effect," supposedly meaning some event, "A," causes event, "B," and every, event, "A," will always cause an event, "B." When Hume described cause that way, his intention was to invalidate the idea of cause itself. He made the valid point that just because one has always observed event, "B," follows event, "A," does not mean event, "B," would always follow event, "A." His argument was that one's belief in cause and effect was simply a prejudice based on what one has seen so far, but the first cause that fails to produce the expected effect disproves cause.

Unfortunately, all future philosophers simply accepted Hume's invalid description of cause (as cause and effect) and regarded Hume's conclusion a great philosophical problem, because it also invalidated another accepted fallacy, that science proceeds by the method of induction which depended on the view that cause and effect could be established by means of observing enough cases to statistically conclude that event A would always result in event B. The problem, however, is neither cause or induction, but Hume's incorrect explanation of what cause is, and the broadly accepted fallacy that science is inductive.

Since the true nature of cause is the explanation of events in terms of the nature of an entity's own actions in response to all other entities as determined by the entity's own nature, there is no cause and effect, because no two real entities are identical and in the entire history of the world there have never been two identical entities in identical relationships to other entities. [Please see the article, "Cause."]

Events Cause Events—Hume's wrong view of cause is sometimes call the, "event," theory of cause, meaning certain events cause other events. It has already been explained that there are never two identical events. In addition to the fact there never are the same events is the fact that events are always and only the behavior of entities, and it is the nature of the entities that determine what any event will be. An object thrown at a window my be said to cause the window to shatter, but if the, object is only a sponge ball, or even if the object is a rock and the window is Lucite, the window will not shatter. It is the nature of the entities involved, not the actions, that is the explanation (cause) of the event.

Cause Is Efficient—The idea that cause is some kind of "creative," or "motive force," or a "power that makes things exist or happen," is a much older idea with roots in ancient Greek philosophy, including Aristotle. This mistaken view of cause was addressed above under "Scientific Principles". As explained there, attributing some motivating or initiating force to, "cause," is a kind mysticism, animism, or anthropomorphism. It is similar to attributing cause to scientific principles. Cause does not mean what, "makes something happen," it is an explanation of the nature of those things, the action of which, "are what happens."

A Chain Of Causes—The fallacious cause and effect view results in a strange view of reality itself. Both philosophers and scientists who have been influenced by that mistaken view describe reality as a chain of causes and effects, beginning with some initial cause or state (like the "big bang") which determines the entire future of everything in the universe. It is pictured as a kind of cascade of causes in which the effect of every cause is the cause of the next succeeding event, which causes the next event, ad infinitum.

Of course events do not cause events and this view is mistaken. Nevertheless, the behavior of all physical entities (excluding living organisms) are determined by their physical attributes, as described by the principles of the physical sciences. Since the behavior of all entities is their own action in relation to all other entities, that much of physical reality is determined entirely by physical principles.

Cause Explains Why—As the description of what everything is and behaves as it does, the principles of the physical sciences explain how everything behaves, which is the real meaning of cause. The principles of science do not explain why anything is what it is or why it behaves as it does, except in terms of an entities own nature. Nothing, "outside," an entity causes it to be what it is or do what it does. The search for, "why," presumes some mystical explanation for why things are as they are. It assumes a, "contingent," reality. It is just plain superstition.

Logical Determinism—Sometimes invoked to imply that cause means that everything that ever has or ever will happen (like the "chain of causes," view) must be true, because of the logical fact that what is cannot be anything other than what is. One illustration of this idea is the fact that the past is immutable. Every event of the past is whatever it is and can never change. But, every past event was once a future event which was going to be the event it was, because there could never have been a time when it was going to be anything else. The future is as certain as the past.

If it rained yesterday, it is not possible that it could not have rained yesterday. Two weeks ago, it was going to rain yesterday absolutely. If it is going to rain tomorrow, it is not possible that it is not going to rain tomorrow. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen and nothing other than that is possible.

While this must be true, it has no significance in terms of cause. The certainty of the future does not cause the future, it only recognizes that there is a future and that it must be something, and whatever it will be, it must be because there can only be one future. What that future will be is not caused by that fact, however. What the future will be is determined by what every entity that now exists will do determined by its own nature. Logical determinism is a misnomer. The certainty of the future is not, "determined," by logic, only described by it.

Physical, Living, Conscious, Mental Attributes

If cause does not mean, "that which makes something happen," and only explains how an entity's own nature determines what it does, there is no problem of how volition is possible, even if everything has a cause. The only explanation that is needed is, what the difference in causes are. For those things which are physical and do not have the attributes of life, consciousness, and mind, all their behavior can be explained in terms of the physical attributes. There is nothing about any of those attributes that excludes the possibility of other attributes. Since there are living organism, it is obvious that physical entities can also have the attribute of life. Life can only be an attribute of a physical entity. All the physical characteristics of an organism will conform to physical principles, which the life attribute must include in its behavior. There is no conflict between the physical attributes and life attribute in an organism. They are not things or substances that must be integrated in some way, they are, as an organism, what that entity is. All the physical behavior of an organism is explicable in terms of physical principles (i.e. physics, chemistry, biology), but the total behavior of the entity as an organism cannot be explained without the life attribute, which total behavior ceases when the life process ceases, without changing the physical characteristics.

Floating Abstraction

One of the great mistakes of ontology is the idea that a thing's attributes (qualities, properties, characteristic) make it what it is. The view that an entity is, "made up," of something to which have been added shape, size, color, mass, temperature, or any other attribute is mystic nonsense. An entity is whatever its attributes are.

A red rubber ball is not something to which elasticity, roundness, redness, and weight have been added. A red rubber ball has the attributes it has which just happen to be elasticity, roundness, redness, and weight because that is what a red rubber ball is. Independent of the red rubber ball the elasticity, roundness, redness, and weight of the ball do not exist. Treating attributes as things that have independent existence is a floating abstraction. No attribute exists except as the attribute of the entity it is the attribute of.

It is the wrong view of attributes that regards life, consciousness, and minds as some kind of things added to entities to make them organisms. The life of an organism is not something added to an organism, it is just another of its attributes. Life, consciousness, and minds do not exist independently of the organisms they are the life, consciousness, and mental attributes of.

Everything does have a cause, that is, a description of what its nature is that determines how it will behave in relationship to all other things. The behavior of all physical entities is determined by their physical nature. The behavior of organisms is determined by their nature as living physical entities. The behavior of human beings is determined by their nature as living, conscious, volitional beings. The cause of human behavior is human conscious choice.

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