Causation and necessary connection

Vipin asked:

How do we define necessary connection essential for a cause-effect relationship? As per David Hume, there is no necessary connection found in matters of fact; but is it true? Can we not find any causal relationship between any two facts in this world?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I was hoping Craig would answer this one. I seem to have different intuitions about cause and effect from most philosophers coming to this topic. So you should take my answer with a big pinch of salt.

Hume saw the basis for the alleged ‘necessary connection’ between cause and effect in the operations of the mind, the tendency of the mind to pass from one ‘idea’ to another associated ‘idea’. He is careful to explain how this psychological process is consistent with a ‘logic’ of causes (see his ‘rules by which to judge of causes and effects’, Treatise of Human Nature Book I, Part III: Section XV). The frequently cited objection that merely noting regularities would fail to distinguish genuine cases of causation from accidental connections would leave him cold.

It’s a good theory, so far as it goes. Carl Hempel developed the idea in his ‘deductive-nomological’ (D-N) model of explanation. Various weird examples have been concocted, which attempt to show how the D-N model sometimes fails to track causation. One I remember from my Birkbeck days is ‘Valberg’s Bomb’, which greatly exercised G.A. Cohen, famous expositor of Marx, when he ventured into what was for him relatively unfamiliar territory of philosophy of science in a lecture series I attended. (I’ve just searched Google, but the only reference I could find to Valberg’s Bomb was an email I wrote back in 2011 Jerry Valberg was a colleague of G.A. Cohen at UCL.)

Elizabeth Anscombe, in her essay ‘Causality and Determination’ (E. Sosa, M. Tooley eds., Causation. OUP. pp. 88-104, 1993) challenged the Humean orthodoxy, arguing for a more traditional, pre-Humean notion of a cause as the ‘source’ from which the effect flows. On this account, there need be no universal law under which the cause-effect pair falls.

What is a genuine ‘effect’ of a ’cause’? The cause must be the ‘source’ of the effect. The cause must be the thing from which the effect ‘really comes’. This is something we all believe. But just repeating the belief, or finding some new word to describe it, is no help at all. The examples Anscombe cites in her paper are unpersuasive. In her impressive oeuvre, this essay seems somewhat of an oddity.

I used to be Humean, but I’ve come round, or at least half come round. What I now believe is that causation can be a one-off, just as Anscombe said. She was right. But I also believe in a Humean fashion that, in principle, anything can cause anything. Logically, anything is possible. It is logically possible that I could sneeze and as a result the universe could disappear in the next second. My typing a full stop at the end of the last sentence, could, in principle, have caused a plumber in Delhi to die of a heart attack.

Impossible, you say?

Let’s run the universe again in our total-universe simulator, and see what happens. We can stop Kennedy’s assassination, but only (on the ‘official’ theory) by preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from firing his rifle, or else spoiling his aim. In a similar way, we can try various ways of altering the course of world history, each more or less amusing. But every single time I type that period, Mr Singh’s heart stops. This is no mere accidental connection. We can’t explain it. Nor is there any ground for thinking that an explanation could, in principle, be available. It’s just a fact. Blame the glitch on whoever it was who designed the universe.

That’s my intuition. In practice, just as Hume said, we must always as a methodological principle look for a causal law to explain cause-effect relationships. But there is no guarantee that we will find the law in question, or even that it exists. Many of the things we take to be ‘effects’ of ’causes’ might not be such, and we would never know. Many of the things that we would never in a million years imagine could be ‘effects’ of ’causes’ might indeed be such, and we would never know. (For roughly Kantian reasons, we should add ‘hopefully not too many’.)

I honestly don’t think that was what Anscombe believed, not for one second. But that’s just the way with taking an argument, or an idea, to its logical conclusion.

As Plato said, you have to follow the argument wherever it goes.

One thought on “Causation and necessary connection

  1. The question is always “what makes sense”, since we humans are in need of arguments to make sense of our deeds and thoughts. Thus if gravity is not the cause of the Earth circling the Sun, what is? Our laws of physics try to be consistent, even if they are mere approximations to a deeper formula unknown so far. What Hume intended was a defence against a tendency in his time to “explain” every wonder as caused by “Gods wisdom”. That was a cheap explanation for an atheist like him. There really was an “ants and bees theology” in his time, deriving the existence of God from the “wisdom” of ant and bees behaviour. Thus one could invent causes ad libitum where they are needed. This should not be allowed. Thus the human mind tends to construct cause-effect connections to avoid a meaningless world which is scary. Sort of “logical horror vacui”.

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