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The Philosophy of Life



Chapter 6: The Constitution of the Universe (Continued)

Causation: A Law of Necessity

The human mind is bound up in the idea of causal relation. The cause seems to precede the effect in a temporal sequence. It is impossible for us to think of the occurrence of events independently of the concept of causality. The idea of space and time is intimately connected with this concept. Space, time and cause represent the three basic units of the structure of all conceivable knowledge. The moment an event is known, it is found to be in space and time and is at once linked up with others in a causal change. We either think in terms of space, time and cause or do not think at all. This exhibits the completely empirical character of our knowledge of the world. We are accustomed to think that there ought to be a cause for every effect and that every effect should be related to its cause spatially and temporally. The commonsense view of causality, however, does not stand the test of careful scrutiny. On observation it is found that every cause has another cause behind it, so that no single object or event can be considered to be a cause of a particular effect. There is a series of causes, even as there is a series of effects. If we take into consideration the position of an event in this long chain of causation, we will find that every cause is also an effect with reference to that from which it originated, and a cause in relation to that which it originates. Further, no single factor does ever become a cause of any condition or situation. The ordinary view of causation takes only a bit of the whole process by way of abstraction, disregarding the other factors which are not open to the immediate observation of the senses and the mind. The question now arises as to whether causation is a fact relevant to the world in itself, or it is only a mental habit to cognise events in a particular way.

Kant held that the mind imposes on the chaotic and disorderly material of the world its own laws of order, regularity, causality, etc., so that our experiences must fit in with the framework of the mind. This framework is supplied by the mind for the arrangement of objects which become the contents of its knowledge. Things of the world, in themselves, are not really related exactly in the way in which the mind supposes them to be; but the recognition of causation in the world of events is a necessary condition of the mind, to be obeyed and fulfilled, if we are to have any experience at all. Modern physics maintains that the mind selects certain aspects of the world, which can fit into the, categories of which it is constituted, and rejects other aspects which remain outside its knowledge. The symbolic world of present day physics is an abstraction of a mental construct from reality, and this abstraction obeys the laws of the mind, of mathematics and of physics. Thus we are led finally to the conclusion arrived at by Eddington that “where science has progressed the farthest, the mind has but regained from Nature that which the mind has put into Nature.” We seem to discover ourselves in the world outside.

The Meaning of Causal Relation

Causation implies that one thing proceeds from another thing. But one thing cannot be the cause of another thing if one thing is different from another thing, for causation becomes a relation between two terms, and if there is no such relation, there is no causation. But if there is such a relation, there is no sharp difference between cause and effect. The discovery of the nature of the effect in the cause shows that cause and effect are, essentially, non-different. And if they are non-different, again, there can be no causation, for causation has a meaning only when cause and effect maintain some sort of independence. The causal concept is logically indefensible, and it arises on account of our weddedness to the notion of the spatialisedness of experience. No intelligible explanation of causation can be offered on the basis of the belief in the actual separation of objects from one another. The duality that hampers us at every step becomes a hindrance to a correct understanding of life in its essence. Only on the admission of the universe as a connected process of events, and not a collocation of isolated objects hanging in space, can a satisfactory account of the phenomenon of causation be given. And, if the universe is a continuous process, no one thing or event in it can be said to be the cause of any other thing or event, for, in an unbroken process, every part has to pervade and penetrate every other part, so that everything in it becomes a cause as well as an effect. Every event, at every moment, reflects a universal situation, and does not stand as a witness abstracted from the whole. James Jeans says: “If we suppose that the happenings of Nature are governed by a causal law, we must suppose that the cause of any effect is the whole previous state of the world, so that every effect has an infinite number of causes.” “Yet in considering any event it is not necessary for all previous events in the history of the world to be considered as separate causes. The effects of the earlier of them are already taken into account in the later, and they need not be allowed for twice over. It is enough to consider a cross-section at one particular instant of time” (Physics and Philosophy: pp. 103-104).

That there is something exceedingly wrong with our ordinary notion of causality is pointed out by Prof. C. E. M. Joad, in his Guide to Philosophy (p. 219), by a striking illustration from the speed of light. Starting with the explanation that an observer situated in a comet travelling away from the earth and viewing events upon the earth through a telescope will be able to observe the events of the earth when the light-rays travelling from earth reach him, he says that, if the speed of the comet were equal to that of light, the events upon the earth will appear to the observer to cease, since no light-rays carrying the message of the succession of events can catch him up. And if, again, the velocity of the comet were to exceed that of light, the observer will see the sequence of events in reverse order, for he will catch up the light-rays which, travelling from the earth, convey the message of events earlier than those which he has already observed. What we call causes will then appear to the observer in the comet as effects, and our effects will be to him causes. The purport of this illustration is that the idea of cause and effect is not valid to the events themselves, but that it is dependent upon the point of observation, and that the direction of causation is relative to the position and velocity of the observer. Causation, then, reduces itself to a mental construct, a form of perception and understanding, the way in which our minds are forced to view events. The world of causation cannot be the real world; the real must be other than what we know through the instruments with which we are endowed at present.

Causation and Causality

Arthur Eddington introduces a distinction between causation and causality. Causation is that relation of cause and effect in which there is the notion of the temporal antecedence of the cause to the effect. This is the ordinary commonsense view of the meaning of cause-and-effect relationship. But by causality Eddington understands not a temporal sequence of events valid to observing minds but what he terms a symmetrical relation of the totality of the events forming the world, in which the world is conceived of as a complete system of connected events. Whitehead holds a view similar to it when he proposes a reality of the nature of an organismic process. However, we have to add that causality can be said to be objective only in the sense that it is observed not merely by one mind but by all minds. Still it remains a fact that causality is meaningful only to minds and that its extra-mental validity cannot be established, though it may be that we, in the present state of affairs, are obliged to admit that causality is perhaps the way of a cosmic mind and thus enjoys an existence outside individual minds. But the purely hypothetical character of this supposition cannot be denied. A necessity of thought need not be an uncontradictable truth. James Jeans observes: “We can no longer say that the past creates the present; past and present no longer have any objective meanings, since the four-dimensional continuum can no longer be sharply divided into past, present and future.” “If we still wish to think of the happenings in the phenomenal world as governed by a causal law, we must suppose that these happenings are determined in some substratum of the world which lies beyond the world of phenomena, and so also beyond our access.” The implication of the quantum mechanics of Dirac is declared to be that there has to be a disappearance of causality from the world we see on account of the possibility of the absence of any unique association of the events in the phenomenal world with the events in the substratum.

Cause and Effect are Continuous

Causation among things outside is to be understood as the individualistic reading of the consequences of an indivisible consciousness appearing as the witness of objects which have it as their existence and content. The function of this universal principle as an unbroken continuum appears, when it is manifest in individuals, as the law of causal relation among things and events. The dynamic self-expression of the Absolute in the world of objects involves a causal relation among them. Thus, causation has a meaning in the empirical world, but is meaningless to the Absolute or to the universe taken as a whole. In the world of the senses this relation manifests itself as mechanistic causation, but to the understanding it reveals its teleological character. The world is directed by the nature of the Absolute, and so all causation must be a teleological push and pull, though in the sense-world of mathematical and physical laws mechanism has a full sway. Mechanism and teleology do not contradict each other but form two phases of one truth. The senses cannot observe the purpose hidden in Nature, they can only see a mechanical relation of causation among things. But the higher understanding soars above the mechanism of the sense-world and discovers a supreme purpose in life, towards which evolution directs it.

We have to assume that cause and effect are continuous, as there is no reason why the cause should cease to produce the effect at any given moment of time, for, a moment’s cessation may give occasion to a total cessation as the reason for a moment’s cessation may apply for all time. There should, therefore, be supposed a ceaseless flow of the cause into the effect; else there would be no causation. But, if there is an unceasing continuity between cause and effect, there would be no difference between the two; and without this difference there is no causation. Neither with difference nor without it between cause and effect does there seem to be any contingency of our giving an account of the causal scheme. Cause and effect are but two sides of a uniform existence which the logical intellect finds itself obliged to interpret as a region of causal relations. The Vedanta holds that the production of the effect is an appearance and the only reality is the cause which, due to its non-relation to any real effect, cannot even be called a cause. That the cause should have a temporal precedence over the effect is not the truth of things, but only the result of the impossibility of the intellect to think in any other way. The law of the temporal mind is no absolute law, but has a meaning only to itself. The assumption of a first causeless cause producing real effects would be to posit a beginning for the time-series which would have to originate without any reason whatsoever. If causation were real, there would be no chance of ultimate freedom or Moksha. But, from the scriptures we understand that it is possible for us to break the chain of causation and attain the highest beatitude in union with Brahman.