The Three Causes

1. Why is there something rather than nothing?

Probably the deepest and most difficult question of cosmology is "why?".  Why is there anything at all -- meaning the universe, or universes, if there happen to be more than one.  There are two aspects to this question; they are linked but distinct.

First, there is the question of purpose.  Does the universe have a purpose?  Is it here for a reason that goes beyond the universe itself?  If you read my introductory material on Mathematics and Christianity, you will know that the story of the deist mathematician makes clear my version of the christian answer to this question.  The question of purpose is fundamental, and it is one of the places that cosmology and (christian) religion intersect -- not necessarily by agreeing, or disagreeing, but by considering essentially the same question.

The other part of "why?" is the question of causation.  Is the universe caused by something?  If so, what is the cause -- and why didn't we include the cause as part of what we meant by "universe" in the first place?  Or, what caused the cause, and so on.  There are plenty of ways this discussion can spiral into
self-referential nonsense.

The questions of causation and purpose are linked.  There is no point in speaking of purpose that has no ability to cause.  Causation that is purpose-linked gives meaning to all the questions asked, and perhaps answered, by religion, and some branches of philosophy.  If there is something such as a purpose that cannot be linked to any causation, it is a purpose doomed to frustration (or irrelevance).  Perhaps there is even no meaning to such a concept (of course "meaning" is also associated with purpose and causation, but there will be enough proliferation of terms in this document, so let's not go there at this point).

It is conceivable (at least to me) that the answer to the question is "why must there be a why?"  Perhaps there is no "reason" behind the universe, and perhaps nothing "caused" it.  I can think of at least a few approaches to philosophy that say such things.  Well, maybe this is conceivable, but I don't see the value in this particular perspective.

On the one hand, purpose and causation have this natural link, but on the other hand, the two types of causation -- randomness and determinacy -- usually discussed in physical terms are not linked to purpose in any way that makes sense.

I propose a system in which there are not two, but three causes.  I should make it clear that I cannot justify, in any satisfactory fashion, the existence of my third kind of cause.  But, for that matter, I cannot justify either of the other.  All that I can say is that it appears to make sense to discuss all three of them; the third cause makes sense of some parts of our natural discourse about meaning, purpose, morality and so on, and so seems to be to be a necessary conception even if there is no such thing.

Some serious-minded scientists do not accept randomness as a type of causation.  A particularly significant example is Steven Weinberg, a Nobel-Prize winning theoretical physicist renouned for his work in quantum mechanics.  Now, given the way we speak of the quantum world, one would think a serious quantum mechanic like S.W. would need the tool of randomness in his toolbox, but Weinberg insists that it is completely unnecessary.  In his book Dreams of a Final Theory he makes it clear that it is quite possible, without violating anything we know about the universe, to hold that it is entirely deterministic, and that he definitely leans in this direction.

Other scientists have seriously proposed that the universe is a giant soup of tiny random events whose corporate behavior, on a larger scale, give the impression of deterministic action in the classical world.  In this conception, the universe is purely random, and deterministic laws evident from empirical experiences are mere manifestations of emergent phenomena explainable in terms of statistical mechanics.

In any case, to deny the alternate type of cause does not excuse one from speaking of it or acknowledging a coherent concept of such a thing.  A pure determinist must acknowledge the concept of a random cause, if for no reason other than to deny its relevance to cosmology.  Similarly for one who denies determinism.

For the same reason, I think that it should be acceptable to introduce yet another concept, if for no reason beyond explaining why there is no such thing (I think I'll leave that part to someone else!).

2. Causes, effects, causation, causal agents and causal agency

Let's begin with a "mathematical" thing -- defining a few working terms.

Causation is a relationship between phenomena, systems, objects, or events, in which one phenomenon, let us say A, leads to the existence of another phenomenon, let us say B.  Now, generally we can conceive of a larger system in which phenomena A and B are both manifest; the presence of A, and some action within the system precipitated by A, leads to B.  Put another way, one aspect (A) of some state of the system leads to another aspect (B) of another state of the system.

In the above description, A is said to cause B, and B is the associated effect(of A).  Now it is possible that it is not A itself, but some internal state of A, that causes B.  A may be a subsystem of the larger system which has its own internal states and its own rules for internal action.  In some states, or under some conditions, A may cause B1 (one manifestation, or state, of effect B) and in another state, or under other conditions, A may cause B2 (another, different, manifestation of effect B).  If A is a subsystem (phenomenon, object, etc.) which in some circumstances can be said to be the cause of some effects, it is said to be a causal agent, and the property of being a causal agent is called causal agency.

I make no pretense that these terms are being used according to any conventions in modern philosophical discourse; I only claim that my uses are at least consistent with the way these words are generally used in common speech and thought.  The reader will have to understand my uses of them, however, in order to follow what I have to say later.

There is a definite similarity between causation and logical entailment; we speak of proposition B being entailed by proposition A in much the same way as I have spoken of effect B being caused by causal agent A.  There is a significant difference between the two kinds of relationship, at least in the way we think
about them; I don't think I can effectively articulate this difference at this point, but let me try to make at least one point about it.

In the usual propositional logic one generally does not think of the statement "A implies B" as meaning that "A causes B" in the normal sense.  For one thing, causation is usually thought of as being time-dependent (we shall not require this strictly -- in fact ultimately it will be impossible to require this in all contexts).   "A causes B" only means that, if A is true, then B must be true as well; or, put another way, if B is not true, then A cannot be true either.  It is merely a link to be used in potential chains of reasoning.  In fact, quite the opposite may be true.  It may be that B causes A.

Suppose we are explorers in a previously unexplored land, and we come across some ancient ruins -- buildings, roads, aqueducts, and various artifacts of a long-gone civilization.  Call our observation of the ruins event A.  What do we infer?  At some time in the past, there was a city in this spot; there are many
specifics we can conclude about this city and the people who lived there, all from what we see.  Call this city, and our reasonable inferences, B.  A implies B.
Well, perhaps not strictly speaking, in the sense of propositional logic, but this is our normal way of describing the logical entailment here; a strictly formal version of it, however, could easily retain this same essential feature.

Now, although A implies, or entails, B, does it make sense to say that A has caused B?  Has our observation of ancient ruins caused the city, whose ruins we observe, to exist?  Surely this is nonsense!  Well, perhaps I shouldn't be so strong, for there are some who work very seriously on philosophies and cosmologies that say exactly that sort of thing.  Let it suffice, then, to agree that this is not a conclusion consistent with the common way of thinking about such things.  Implication, in any case, is not causation; in science quite the opposite often happens:  we infer a cause from its effect; the effect entails the cause.

Of course, if a cause leads inexorably to some effect, then it is also true that the cause entails the effect.

Do some causes not entail some effects?  Consider our illustration above.  The city may have caused the ruins, but surely it did not (in any way that is immediately obvious) cause us to wander through the land and observe the ruins.  The city did not cause the later observation.  However, had there been no city, the observation would not have happened.  What the city caused was the possibility of this observation.

Now, suppose that, sometime between the city and our exploration, a volcano obliterated all sign of the ruins.  In this case, the city may have caused the possibility of observation, but something else caused the elimination of this possibility.  Clearly causation is not so simple as "A causes B, and nothing else need be considered".  Indeed, A may "attempt" to cause B, but for one reason or another, may fail to do so.  In these imprecise terms we might think of the city "attempting" to cause the possibility of observation, but failing to do so because of the intervention of the volcano.  Unsuccessful causation needs also be considered.  It is possible to speak of a causal agent that fails to have a particular effect.  There are further complications, but our considerations need get no more complicated than this.

2. The three causes

While we shall be speaking of "three causes" what I really mean by this phrase is that (in the formulation I shall propose), there are three distinct (though perhaps overlapping) varieties, or genres, of causal agents -- thus, three kinds of causation.  It may be a point for the philosophers to consider whether or not there are also three kinds of effects; is an effect distinguished by the type of causation with which it is associated?

Briefly put, my three causes, are I. determinism; II. randomness; and III. volition. The corresponding causal agents are called deterministic agents (or deterministic causes), random agents, and volitional agents.  Of course, the third one is the key to my proposal, but we should discuss them in parallel to compare and contrast them.  Let us consider them one at a time.

I.  Deterministic agents

A causal agent is said to be deterministic if its effects are determined completely by the agent and its context relative to the initial conditions of the systems that is, the state of the system at the time at which the event(s) of causation occurs.

II.  Random agents

A randomagent is an agent for which the associated effects are determined, neither by the agent, nor by the initial conditions of the system, nor by the combination of these two.  It would be nonsense to speak of a cause that does not determine its effect in any way, and one must permit the random agent a way to do so.  In simplistic terms, we say that the random agent has before it several possible outcomes; the outcome which is selected becomes its effect.  (A random cause, therefore, does not necessarily logically entail its particular effect).  One can concieve of a system containing a random agent returning once again to some state, with indistinguishable initial conditions, a "second time", and the random agent can just as well select another outcome, even if in principle there is no distinction between the two instances of causation, other than the particular outcome selected as the effect; in fact, given enough repetitions of thie procedure, one expects a different outcome to be selected.  Further, given sufficiently many repetitions of this "experiment", one expects the various effects to occur with some relative frequency -- this is sometimes known as the Law of Large Numbers, a standard principle used in probability theory.  Though there is no physical theory that forces such a thing to exist, we think in terms of random agents and apply the Law of Large Numbers with no particular justification other than that its predictive power is consistent with all observations.

III.  Volitional agents.

A volitional agentis a causal agent that is neither deterministic nor random and whose causal agency is not merely a combination of deterministic and random elements.  This, of course, is not an acceptable definition, because it is simply a denial of certain properties, not a delineation of others.  So let me go on.  A volitional agent effects its causes in accordance with its own internal characteristics (which we refer to as its character).  In a sense this is no different from the action of the other two types of causes, but the volitional agent, like a random agent, has several genuinely possible outcomes; these are not determined by any conditions internal to the agent or external to it, they are "givens".  Also like the random agent only one of the oucomes is selected.  Unlike the random agent, however, the internal agent selects an outcome based on consideration of the corollary effects---those precipitated by the outcomes themselves, acting as agents -- deterministic, random or volitional and producing their own effects.  These subsequent outcomes are considered in terms of the internal characteristics of the volitional agent, and a choice is made by the agent in accordance with its character.  This choice leads to the effect -- the selection of the eventual outcome.

Volition is, of course, what we speak of as "will"; "free will" is causation by a volitional agent that is unfettered by the effects of actions of other agents -- be they deterministic, random or volitional.

To see how a volitional agent operates, one need only consider the way we ordinarily think of human decision-making.  We open our sock drawer and are faced with several different colors of socks -- potential outcomes.  The white ones today?  No, that is too boring; besides white socks are sport socks, and today we'll be in the office.  Green?  No, better save them for St. Patrick's day, which is next week.  Blue or red?  Blue makes me sad; red reminds me of my mother-in-law, who gave them to me.  Let's see...I'll be taking off my shoes when I visit so-and-so, so I'll be looking at my socks then;  that is the last time I want to think of my mother-in-law.  Blue is ok, I can deal with that...okay, I'll wear the blue socks -- effect!

The volitional agent has internal characteristics -- in this example, the person's history and the associations he or she makes with the various colors of socks, perhaps personal vanity, practical wisdom, and preferences for which there is no particular accounting (chacun a son gout; gustubus non est disputandum)
these internal characteristics are not brought to bear on the choice of outcomes in isolation from the environment; the state of the system (visiting a friend, past events, etc.) are taken into account; more importantly, superimposition of the possible outcomes and their corollary effects lead the agent to make a decision, bringing all these influences together.

4.  Is the third cause distinct from the first two?

It should be clear from the above that my introduction of volitional agency is nothing new at all -- it is merely a codification of our usual way of discussing matters of choice, in such a way as to set it up for comparison and contrast with the other two types of causal agency.  However, just the fact that we ordinarily discuss things in this way does not, in itself, force the existence of such a "volitional agents".

There are those who hold that volition, or will, is simply an illusion -- the term "epiphenomenon" is often used.  In this view, our consciousness is merely a passenger in a vehicle it cannot control; an observer as the human biosystem acts in accordance with purely deterministic or random causes resulting from its mechanical, chemical or quantum-mechanical makeup and its environment.  There is, in this framework, no such thing as free will -- this is merely a cognitive illusion, and apparently internally selected "choices" are merely subjective experiences of causes of the first two types.  There appears to be no simple way of deconstructing this idea, but there is also no simple and compelling reason to accept it.

The best answer I have for it, however, is the very reason for which I take the trouble to introduce the third cause -- it leads to purpose and something else -- responsibility.  There is no purpose in a purely deterministic system or in a purely random system; at least I must say that I have seen no discussion of anything inherent in such frameworks that would qualify as "purpose" in the sense we normally attribute to our existence and actions.  I have heard no argument that suggests that any combination of the first two causes will lead to purpose, while they do not do so independently.  With purpose and volitional action comes the possibility of assigning responsibility for action -- thus arises morality (more on this later).  And so we speak of, let us say, a chainsaw massacre as an immoral action, and say, without hesitation, that the actor was wrong, while, let us say, a tidal wave that destroys as many people does not, in the same way, invoke moral outrage, for it is caused by a deterministic (or random) causal agent, which bears no responsibility for its actions.  We are appalled at the courts when they admit defenses based on insanity or drunkenness for (let us say) a chainsaw massacre, when we feel that the individual involved was still responsible for his or her actions, even if the action under question was not the massacre, but the choice to drink, or choice of some action leading to the insanity.

Because we conceive of free will, purpose, responsibility, and morality, in our common conception of our world and our lives, it is reasonable to admit the possibility of a causative agent that permits such things to exist.  Without the third cause, these things are difficult to admit to our world.  Recall, for example, the discussion of the link between causation and purpose at the outset of this document.

So my case is not that I have a compelling reason for the third cause to actually exist, only that denial of its existence necessarily entails the denial of several other things of which we would like to speak, especially in the realm of philosophy or christian doctrine.  So it is necessary to admit the third cause into our discussion -- at least -- so that these things may be discussed, even if they are ultimately to be repudiated.

5.  How does causal agency enter the cosmos?

Briefly speaking, this is where I bring in Penrose's interesting speculations about consciousness and tie it into my own ideas of causal agency.  This is one possible proposal, certainly not the only possibility, but too tempting to pass over.

...To be written

6.  The connection between causal agency and moral agency

This has already been introduced in section 4, but I wish to draw some parallels between the moral agency discussed in systematic theology, and my causal agency.

...To be written.

7.  Volitional agency and behavioral psychology

I don't pretend to be knowledgeable about psychology, or about behavioral psychology, though I studied a bit of practical counselling theory that was based on the Rogerian theory years ago, when it was still in vogue.  I have not really been impressed with much of what I've read in this field, but that is probably due as much to my ignorance as to my poor choice of reading material.

One theory of behavior, however, interests me because of its obvious connection to volitional causation.  It is known as Symbolic Interactionism (SI); there are a few different formulations of SI; I like a certain popular description of it that says, in SI, as opposed to more conventional theories of behavior, a person's actions are determined, not by his/her past (eg nature) or present (eg nurture), but by his/her future.  What is meant by this is that humans act in accordance to their reactions not to externals or internal mechanisms, but by considering, in a juxtaposition of symbols, what may come of one's actions; a person shapes their own destiny by considering symbols representing the various possible destinies and choosing between them.

I realise that this is a very naive formulation of this theory -- see my disclaimer above.  Also, as far as I know SI does not explicitly require or even refer to the action of a free will.  However, seen in the light of a discussion of volitional agency as I have raised it here, it is not hard to see the connection.

...To be written.

8.  Related formulations

This is a "wishful thinking section"; I'm not sure what I'll write here.  I've come across a few people who've speculated on the entrance of volitional causes in the universe.

For example, I have seen it proposed that "will" may be a property of some forms of matter, much like "charm", "spin" or "mass"; it can be quantified, but has only neglible influence on the world around it, but acts cumulatively; enough "will-essence" in one object eventually provides some measurable effect, and after some "critical mass" is reached, the object is said to have a will.  Though this approach seems a bit naive, it shares some general features with my system, especially as discussed in section 5.  It was, as I recall, not supposed to be a serious scientific theory, but just a way of opening discussion that may lead to a more concrete proposal along the lines of providing a substrate in which intentional action might enter the physical description of the universe.

My hope is to survey a few alternate approaches here...  Maybe I'll put together some thoughts from people who've been writing me about these ideas.

R. Craigen