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Natural order in all its forms – nature’s ordering principles
Order in the world comes in many forms. For most of its history scientific explanation has followed the example set by Aristotle and best exemplified by syllogism and mathematical proof. Secure empirical generalizations (laws of nature), are used as founding axioms in a deductive argument (see Reason & science for a discussion of scientific explanation). It is still conventional to assume the unity of science such that the order of the universe derives ultimately from the universal laws of physics acting as axioms for the rest of science. This worldview is now under challenge as a new scientific paradigm takes shape. The many regularities that have been discovered in biology, whether or not they are embedded in physics, are regularities that apply only to biological systems and this is so for all the special sciences. Even assuming the unity of science in this sense it is simply not possible to explain the theory of natural selection in the language and concepts of basic physics. The same is so for the orderliness and regularities investigated by all the special sciences. Put simply the orderliness we see in the world is not just the orderliness emenating from the laws of physics. We see orderliness manifest in all kinds of regularity, not just the regularities we associate with physics.
So what are the ordering processes that are not part of fundamental physics? Here is a first pass brainstorming of organizing principles in the universe: laws of nature, physical constants, causation, natural selection, all other general principles and regularities, indeed any observation that can be used as a means of prediction. A regularity is a defined state of affairs which when subjected to certain defined conditions gives rise to further defined conditions. This generalization can apply on a universal scale to encompass the laws of physics.
Each domain of knowledge tries to be comprehensive within its own domain. Biology deals with living organisms, a small and spatiotemporally bounded component of the universe. The search for a unified field theory, string theory, or M theory in physics is unlikely to have any impact on biology. The empirical findings of biology concern the structures and functions that occur in biology and which are unique to biology. Organisms are made of the same fundamental stuff as everything else but it is organized differently. The sytem of laws we find in physics do not account adequately for strictly biological phenomena.
Ott,W. 2009. Causation and Laws of Nature in Early Modern Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford
Some philosophers think physical explanations stand on their own: what happens, happens because things have the properties they do. Others think that any such explanation is incomplete: what happens in the physical world must be partly due to the laws of nature. Aristotle advocated the notion of causal power , that causes are “intrinsically directed” at what they produce. But when the Aristotelian view is faced with the challenge of mechanism, the core notion of a power splits into two distinct models, each of which persists throughout the early modern period. We have “top‐down” and “bottom‐up” views of the laws of nature. The scholastic view is a bottom‐up picture: although God must concur with the powers of bodies, those bodies determine the precise course of events. Descartes’s invention of the laws of nature results in a top‐down picture: what happens in the world depends directly on the will of God (divine command theory). The bottom‐up conception employs the core scholastic Aristotelian notion Descartes jettisons: power. Confronted with the mechanist ontology, the scholastic notion of power splits in two: a cognitive model, which locates causal power in the intentional states of a divine mind, and a geometrical model, which accounts for the directedness of causal powers in terms of the mechanical properties of bodies.
This chapter argues in detail that Aristotelian causation is logical necessitationand the ontology of relations, establishing a key feature of scholastic powers: their esse‐ad, or directedness. Scholastic power is intrinsically directed toward its characteristic effect. Descartes mocks the scholastics for having imbued bodies with “little souls” that direct their behavior.
Hume is a subjectivist or a projectivist about causation: does he think that all causal claims merely report our own reactions, or does he think that we are mistakenly projecting causal connections onto the world?
For the Aristotelian conception of power was not discarded so much as reinvented during the modern period, issuing in the cognitive and geometrical models of causation and hence in the top‐down and bottom‐up conceptions of laws. It is a mistake to think of the scholastic concept of power as lingering on without justification, long after it was unmoored by the “new” philosophy. Instead, it was adopted and transformed. The argument is that the top‐down conception of laws is unintelligible in the absence of the theological underpinnings moderns like Descartes provide. It should thus be jettisoned in a version of a bottom‐up theory, one which is not hamstrung by Hume’s unreasonable limitations on intentionality.
Causation in science
Science has no officially accepted definition of cause although, following the classical and pre-Socratic philosophers, it is still regarded in general terms as the critical factor(s) that allow us to give a naturalistic account of movement and change, the key factor(s) constraining or determining possible outcomes and therefore controlling what happens. Today science, for the most part, and at least in principle, treats cause as being of two kinds, material and efficient. Of these it is efficient cause that takes priority, the efficient cause being regarded as the specific agent of change whether it be a man lifting a weight, a force attracting two bodies, or chemical reaction producing growth.
Definition 5 – Efficient cause is the agent that initiates the process of change
Sometimes change, or what happens, is more readily explained and understood, not so much in terms of an agent of change but more in relation to the materials concerned. For a chair, the wood; for a statue, the marble; for the properties of a metal, the metal itself. That is, the material itself out of which something is made plays a major role in the constraints and possibilities (causes) related to that object.
Definition 5 – Material cause is the material out of which the moving or changing object is composed
These kinds of causes were the legacy of the classical world to the scholastics of the Middle Ages, notably Aristotle’s four causes. These were not so much causes in the modern sense but ‘becauses’, what Aristotle believed were the commonest modes of explanation: the material, efficient, formal, and final causes. Aristotle claimed that when we ask the question ‘What is it?’ we resort to these four basic kinds of explanation. The Scientific Revolution took a mechanistic view of the world as matter in motion, rejecting Aristotle’s formal and final causes as explanations that were either too obscure or, in all likelihood, simply mistaken. This legacy from early modern science remains with us today. Though formal and final ‘be-causes’ might occur in various guises in the scientific literature it is still only material and efficient causes that are regarded as scientifically respectable.
Matter is the ‘material cause’. But it is not just matter that ‘constrains’ outcomes it is the particular mode of organization (or what determines that particular form) of matter, say, whether the wood matter is a table or a tree and this is the ‘formal cause’. But deterministic causation so much a part of scientific explanation takes the form of causal necessity ‘If X then Y’. That is, Y is the actualization of X and because of the potentiality in X and inexorability of Y, the process of actualization is known as the ‘final cause’. Though evident in all the physical world final cause is most obviously exemplified in the myriad functions we see in nature: the structures and processes that are ‘for’ some reason or purpose. Final cause is important because it plays a crucial role in the process of reverse-engineering that makes up so much of biological research and explanation. The form is what makes a particular thing what it is, a major factor constraining causal possibility. As a counterfactual, for example, it ensures that an unaided human cannot fly.
Causation and laws of nature : reductionism Jonathan Schaffer
In Theodore Sider, John Hawthorne & Dean W. Zimmerman (eds.), Contemporary Debates in metaphysics. Blackwell. pp. 82-107 (2008) Causation and the laws of nature are nothing over and above the pattern of events, just like a movie is nothing over and above the sequence of frames. Or so I will argue. The position I will argue for is broadly inspired by Hume and Lewis, and may be expressed in the slogan: what must be, must be grounded in what is.
Determinism & the Law of Causality
Determinism, in the context of physics, means having the ability to predict the exact values of the relevant physical properties of a system, such as, position and momentum. For example, you want to measure the position of a certain particle. Then, if the system is deterministic, you should be able to unambiguously predict the position of the particle, using various laws etc. The power of causation lies in its predictive potential. By understanding causes and their effects we can both predict and manage many aspects of the future. ‘Cause’ is thus an integral part of the scientific language of orderly change that we call determinism. Physicist Laplace (1749-1827) vividly expressed cause and effect taken to its logical scientific conclusion in a form, variously expressed, but often referred to as ‘The Law of Causality’:
‘We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.’ Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities
Laplaces statement is the locus classicus for determinism, setting the stage for an endless debate on whether free will is possible. Laplace regarded uncertainty as a consequence of our igorance of the full state of affairs. As science increases knowledge of the causal factors in a system, the causal model approaches determinism.
This is the most potent aspect of science: with determinacy we can explain why things happen and since we can make predictions based on causal regularity we can then manage the future: it is because changes have causes that we can establish matters of fact.
Rigid determinism is challenged by chaos theory and quantum indeterminacy. Further, the word ’cause’ is not so common in the scientific literature. Scientific laws are not framed as ‘A causes B’ but in the form of ‘functional relations between certain events at certain times‘: it is simply not possible to overcome the complexity of listing all antecedents necessary as A to ensure that B will follow. Expressed in the form ‘every phenomenon is determined by its conditions’ or ‘same causes will produce same effects’ its truth and utility are suspect. Be that as it may, for mere humans causes (as configurations of the world) and their effects differ in complexity and that means that our capacity for prediction is often restricted to probabilities and unknowing.
Part of our understanding of causes relating to their degree of determinism is that they may be necessary, sufficient or contributory. If C is a necessary cause of E, then the presence of E necessarily implies the presence of C. The presence of C, however, does not imply that E will occur. If C is a sufficient cause of E, then the presence of C necessarily implies the presence of E. However, another cause C2 may alternatively cause E. Thus the presence of E does not imply the presence of C. A contributory cause of influence is one among several other causes that all contribute to an effect.
Whether or not science is grounded in a ‘Law of Causality’ or ‘Causal Maxim’ (everything that exist must have a cause) it is certainly an integral guide to action, even though science is not constructed on invariable reguarities, and we need to be clear about what controls necessity as degrees of certainty and what makes relations non-accidental.
Determinism is more than belief in causality. The defining feature of determinism is a belief in the inevitability of causality. The essence of determinism is that everything that happens is the only thing that could possibly happen (given the past) under those circumstances. The category of the possible and the category of the actual are exactly the same. If you knew everything about the world today and knew all the causal principles, you could calculate everything in the future and the past with 100% accuracy. To a determinist, the universe is just grinding along as a giant machine with no uncertainty whatsoever. The future and the past are both set in stone, so to speak. Check any textbook or handbook of philosophy. Many psychologists defend determinism thinking that they are defending the notion of causality itself. They think, science studies causes, and if we abandon causation, we cannot do science. But these fears are irrelevant. Everyone believes in causes. The important difference is between probabilistic causation and deterministic causation.
Determinism might or might not be correct. Determinism is impossible to prove or disprove. It directly contradicts the everyday experience of making choices and having multiple options, but everyday experience could be mistaken.))
There is a conflation of causality and determinism. At leastthe possibility that determinism may be a strong form of causality. Often the term “Causal Determinism” is used. I maintain that the notions of causality and determinism are not the same.
Determinism generally is the notion that given a specified state of the world at time T, and given that the laws of nature are fixed, the course of future events is fixed as a matter of natural law. (There is only one possible future which is determined by the current state of the world and the laws of nature). Any earlier complete state of the world entails any later state of the world in all its details. The present could also be used to specify the conditions of the past. Determinism is a bidirectional in time notion.
Chance & necessity
Given the circumstances that existed in the brief moments when the accident occurred then it was all but inevitable: it happened as a matter necessity. But … if I had lingered over my breakfast that day I would have arrived at that particular point in the road later in time and would not even have seen the dog. If I hadn’t been born then the accident could not possibly have happened. In fact if the history of the universe had been different with the Earth closer to the Sun, or the Big Bang had not occurred, then the accident could not have happened because there would be no life on Earth, and maybe no Earth at all.
This thought experiment demonstrates how, ultimately, absolutely everything from the beginning of the universe is connected by its sequence of antecedents. If we want a complete explanation of the configuration of the universe as it exists right now then we must trace its history in every minute detail. Our individual existences are a consequence of the complex interplay of the present moment’s antecedents and, viewed from the present moment, it seems extremely probable that things could have been different. When viewed in this way my car accident was an infinitessimally unlikely event: pure chance.
Pragmatic causation: the boundary conditions, context, or frame
We need to distinguish ‘causes’ from general influences or constraints. If I had not been born then I could not have had a car accident, so was my birth a causal factor in my car accident. Causation generally concerns itself with actual or token causation which is particular events producing particular consequences. There may be a pragmatic ‘frame of interest’ such that the cause of a car crash may be interpreted in various ways depending on our particular interest.
This draws attention to the fact of multi-factor causation and the importance of background circumstances for the occurrence of certain events. In general questions and answers or explanations are given in relation to particular contexts. This generally applies in a court of law. When assessing the legal cause of a car or plane crash there is recognition of the many contributing factors and unique circumstantial factors (background factors that were necessary if the event was to occur at all but which are taken for granted). In such cases it is the most salient causes, given the particular context and specific interests, that are given priority.
Principle 2 – Everyday, ‘legal’ or ‘folk’ causation depends on the context and interests of those assessing them
Causal order & regularity as a consequence of the laws of nature
Hume’s regularity as the operation of laws of nature.
One solution to the idea of exceptions to regularity (night following day) was provided by John Stuart Mill who claimed that exceptionless regularity is provided by laws of nature as a deterministic process. This provided a way of distinguishing causation and correlation. If determinism is accepted as a thesis (broadly accepted by the majority of scientists) then every situation is a potentially causal situation. The situation becomes confusing when we fail to consider the situation as a whole. If we fully understand a particular state of affairs and its boundary conditions or context then, if it is truly determined, then it is also law-like. We only give the attribution ‘law’ to events that are frequently encountered. But, any configuration of the universe if repeated exactly in precisely the same conditions but elsewhere would give rise to identical consequences and in this sense would constitute a universal law. But we do not call this a law if we, and others, are never likely to encounter this particular state of affairs again. What we identify as a cause is generally only a small part of a wider and more complex whole and therefore incomplete. This is why we must accept probabilistic or ‘soft causality’ without strict determinism. But the assumption of strict determinism underlies most scientific theories.
Definition 3 – Given the complex conditions X (constraints or boundary conditions) it must be the case that Y – this will be a law of nature but one which only applies under these local, rare, or unique circumstances
Thus the RTC claims that regularities as laws of nature are both necessary and sufficient for causation although in the everyday sense in which we speak of causation is neither necessary nor sufficient. Today’s extensions to Hume’s argument are referred to as the Regularity Theory of Causation (RTC) which has been refined over time. The canonical statement of RTC is (this defines a cause not a cause for an event):
Definition 4 – C causes E iff at a time earlier than E, C is part of a set of events at t that non-redundantly (that are collectively essential) suffices for E
RCT sems to neglect a stronger sense in which science usually treats causation.
Scientifically causation is daunting for its degree of abstraction. Our need for material certainty leads us to a mental picture of causation as one physical object impacting in some way on another. And yet the structure of an organism is a consequence not just of its physical parts but of their dynamic interaction, the relations between them, their organization. Put simply, cause in biological systems is not just about stuff, it is about stuff in a certain dynamic relationship or organinization. In unpopular Aristotelian terms we are not restricted here to material cause, we are also concerned with formal cause. Modern science tends to focus on material cause ‘what it is made of’, Aristotle’s formal cause is ‘that which makes it what it is’. Biologists have far greater need of this mode of explanation than physicists.
This gives us The situation is so complicated that we simply cannot say what will happen next in precise detail. To overcome this difficulty we focus on those relata that are of special interest to us, or which appear likely to have the greatest impact on us.
We can refer to the complex of interactions going on in the world as a ‘state of affairs’. Our special interest then becomes foreground which occurs, causally, in the context of the background state of affairs. The background state of affairs (boundary conditions) may be of varying significance for the foreground concerns – but never totally inconsequential.
Causation, determinism & predictability
Whenever outcomes have greater or lesser predictability – when they are deterministic – when they proceed as a matter of cause and effect – we can speak very loosely of destiny, goal, purpose, or fate.
Consider the following as aspects of necessity:
b) The laws of physics constraining or limiting the possible paths of cosmic evolution
c) Natural selection constraining or limiting the possible paths of organic evolution
a) One billiard ball hitting another drives the hit ball along a predictable path
d) Constrained outcomes in living systems resemble the constraining effect of conscious deliberation
e) Conscious deliberation is not a ‘free’ activity (free will) but, like any other biological process, constrained in its possibe outcomes (determinism)
Perhaps there is a gradation or continuum of constraint (predetermination) as we pass from the inanimate to the organic and self-conscious and this is an important part of what Aristotle was trying to convey through his concept of telos.
If determinism is valid, given the causal antecedents of circumstance of C, Y must follow, then a coin falling to the floor when released was no more causally necessary than Napolean losing the Battle of Waterloo. Here we are are comparing universal laws (the law of gravitation) with singular and unrepeatable circumstances (the Big Bang and historical events). History is a stream of non-recurring singularities.