• Have I killed someone?

    Causality. It is a funny thing. Or not so funny.

    A few years back, I took my class, as a teacher, on a class trip to the Historic Dockyard in the naval city of Portsmouth, UK. My school is some 45 minutes walk and a short ferry ride from there. With the cost of coaches, it is important to be able to walk to such places to keep the costs down for parents.

    We pasted it there on the way, and we were running a little behind, so the walk back at the end of the day was quicker still. One of our parents, helping with the trip, was a heavy smoker who had to stop off at strategic times throughout the day for a crafty kids-can’t-see-me smoke. Many of the children were moaning on the way back because they simply were not used to walking any such length of time. This certainly applied to some of the parent helpers too.

    Anyway, we made it back for the end of the school day, so good effort.

    Except, that night, we heard that the aforementioned parent helper had died. He had had a heart attack.

    Ever since that moment, I have felt partly responsible for that outcome, of that man’s death. In a naive, folk understanding sort of way, that is.

    In writing my book on free will, and in researching the Kalam Cosmological Argument, I have come to understand that causality is much more complex than one might imagine. A does not cause B which causes C in such a simplistic manner. At best, things are only ever contributory causes (see JL Mackie’s INUS notion of causality [1]); but even then, this assumes one can quantise time, and arbitrarily assign discrete units of existence to both events and entities.

    Let’s look at the event of the class trip. Did it start when we arrived at the dockyard, when we got off the ferry, when we left, when I started organising it, or, indeed, were elements of the trip in place when I started planning the unit, given the job, got my teacher’s qualifications etc?

    Of course, there is no objective answer to that. These abstract labels are subjectively assigned such that we can all disagree on them. That is, simplistically speaking, an element of conceptual nominalism. Likewise, there were necessary conditions in the parent’s life which contributed to his death: anything from his smoking, to his lack of general health, from deciding to come on the school trip, to  deciding to get married and have kids. And so on.

    An event happens in time and arbitrarily ascribing a beginning and an end to that event is an abstract pastime, and thus fails to be (imho) objectively and (Platonically) real.

    This is too simplistic and I don’t buy it!

    Causality works through people, and harnessing it so that any one individual can claim themselves (morally) responsible for future effects which themselves are caused by effects preceding the individual makes for tricky philosophy. This is the battleground for the free will debate, for sure. Arbitrarily cutting causality up in such a way is problematic.

    As I have set out in my analyses of the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA), which I hope to turn into a book (based on a university thesis I did on it), causality is not a linear affair which can be sliced and diced, It is a unitary matrix which derives from either a single beginning (like the Big Bang), something I find problematic, or eternally backward, or reaching some time commencement which could itself be a reboot. Either way, the idea of causality cannot be seen, and should not therefore be seen, in a discrete manner of units which can be attributed to equally problematic notions of events or unities. We are one big family of causality, this here universe.

    So, in answer to the question, no. No, I didn’t kill anyone. Perhaps we could say that the universe did. And whatever notion “I” am, and whatever “I” am represented by, sat on or, better still, was part of the threads which cross and recross intricately and almost infinitely over each other in a mazy web of interconnected causality.


    [1] Cause as INUS-condition. The most sophisticated version of the necessary and/or suffi­cient conditions approach is probably John Mackie’s analysis of causes in terms of so-called INUS condit­ions. Mackie suggested that a cause of some particular event is “an insufficient but non-redundant part of a condition which is itself unnecessary but sufficient for the result” (Mackie 1974: 62). Mackie called a condition of this kind an INUS condition, after the initial letters of the main words used in the definition. Thus, when experts declare a short-circuit to be the cause of fire, they “are saying in effect that the short-circuit is a condition of this sort, that it occurred, that the other condi­tions which, conjoined with it, form a sufficient condition were also present, and that no other suffi­cient condition of the house’s catching fire was present on this occa­sion” (Mackie [1965] 1993: 34). Thus, Mackie’s view may be expressed roughly in the following definition of ‘cause:’ an event A is the cause of an event B if A is a non-redundant part of a complex condition C, which, though sufficient, is not necessary for the effect (B). Source.


    Category: FeaturedFree Will and DeterminismPhilosophy


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    7 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • Luke Breuer

      This sounds Hegelian and Buddhist. Have you done anything interesting with the expansion of space, which limits further causal influence? It’s almost as if causality is being quasi-localized.

      • Can you, er, expand on that?

        • Luke Breuer

          My very vague understanding of Hegel is that you have to understand the whole in order to understand the parts. You seem to be kind-of agreeing, in saying that causality cannot be [at least wholly] understood at the micro-, parts-scale.

          My vague understanding of Buddhism is that the oneness of all things if very important to know. It reminds me of the block universe; I’d love to see the intersection of some major sect(s) and eternalism.

          As to the expansion of space, surely you know that at some point in the future, the Milky Way will exist, but all light headed toward the Milky way from outside will not be able to catch up with the expansion of space. When this happens, there will be no further causes from outside of the Milky Way. The only ‘additional’ causes would be from random fluctuations, if indeed those ‘add information’ to reality. The point is that at some point in the future, the Milky Way will be causally isolated from all other galaxies. It seemed to me that this fact might lead your above thinking to interesting places.

          • It was the last bit I was wanting clarification on. Yes, I find that fascinating. The thing I most liked about Krauss’s book is the idea that we are in a golden age of discovery about the universe, something that entities would not be able to do in billions of years because they would not be able to observe key parts of the universe due to expansion.

            • Luke Breuer

              I wonder if he stole the “golden age of discovery” bit from Hugh Ross—or vice versa, or some common source. I’m not a fan of Hugh Ross; I just happen to recall a similar statement by him.

            • Phasespace

              I doubt the idea came from Hugh Ross. This notion has been kicking around amongst astronomers and cosmologists for decades. My fellow physics students and I had discussions about this very topic over two decades ago. It’s highly likely that Sagan said something about it too, although I don’t think he ever mentioned it in Cosmos.

    • Kevin Friery

      Does this not also link tangentially to Carl Sagan’s ” If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch you must first invent the universe” ?

      • Kevin!? Why have I never heard that quote before?Love it!

        • Gus

          you. do. not. know. god.

          • Tim Tian

            How many times *have* you said that?

          • Nerdsamwich

            I do, though. Fucker owes me fifty bucks. I seem to recall him saying that you’d pay it. You got my money?

            • Gus

              I. Do. Not. Have. The. Money.

            • Nerdsamwich

              That lying fucker YHWH swore to me that you were good for it. That shit. Guess I’ll just have to take it out of his dirty hippie kid’s kneecaps, then.

            • Void Walker

              Gus is broke. Also, he’s a very weak troll. Don’t waste your time, trust me.

            • Nerdsamwich

              Nah, this is how I relax from actual debate.

            • Void Walker

              Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you man.

            • Nerdsamwich

              Sometimes it’s fun to just unload on a big, fat, acceptable, deserving target.

            • Void Walker

              I’ll grant you that. Gus has a giant fucking bulls eye on his face, after all :-p

          • Void Walker

            You. Are. A. Shit. Troll.

        • Void Walker

          Jonathan, I’ve noted that Gus is spamming the same canned response again, and again, and again. He’s in full troll mode, level 45. I think banning him would be wise.

    • Void Walker

      Similarly, I wonder if I’ve ever created someone. That is, perhaps my actions thus far have resulted in two people meeting, getting it on, and birthing the next president of the united states.

      • Nerdsamwich

        Or even somehow causing a major formative event in someone’s psyche. Like, did the abnormally large tip I left a waitress last week make her happier than usual, causing her to be extra attentive to her family that evening, leading to her teenage son’s decision not to kill himself? Could I then be considered responsible for what he does with the rest of his life? Have I, in essence, created the man he will become?

        • Void Walker

          Fascinating, I’ve had similar thoughts. Chains of causation are far reaching, incredibly powerful things. Whether we contribute to once of a thousand links, or a bit more, every persons actions can resonate and impact the world.

    • Pingback: The “I”, personhood and abstract objects | A Tippling Philosopher()

    • Pingback: Is there trouble with Islam? | A Tippling Philosopher()

    • Pingback: You’re wrong about Hillsborough; thinking critically about causality | A Tippling Philosopher()

    • Pingback: Some notes on free will, evolution and evolutionary psychology, part 1 • A Tippling Philosopher()

    • Pingback: A Great Myth about Atheism: Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot = Atheism = Atrocity - REDUX • A Tippling Philosopher()

    • Pingback: Atheist killers; correlation not causation. • A Tippling Philosopher()

    • Pingback: US religious right losing sway: picking simplistic causal reasons • A Tippling Philosopher()