Tuesday, June 4, 2013

96. Multiple causality

Aristotle proposed a multiple causality. The efficient cause (e.g. carpenter) does something (makes furniture) with materials (material cause, e.g. wood) according to technology and craftsmanship (formal cause), in order to achieve an end (final cause), e.g. to create an income or to satisfy professional or creative will, depending on conditions that affect those causes (conditional cause, e.g. markets, institutions), possibly according to some model to be executed or example to be imitated (exemplary cause).

Aristotle applied this causality to nature, as if stars or falling objects have an end to which they move, and this idea was justifiedly relegated to the dungheap of the history of ideas. It was replaced by a simple mechanical notion of causality, as with billiard balls bumping into each other, or as a purely formal notion of consistent succession in time, with the effect invariably following upon the cause. The irony is that this single causality next became the ambition also of human and social science, while there Aristotelian multiple causality fits admirably.

Economists and social scientists talk about agents (efficient cause), their motivation (final cause), availability of means (material cause), know-how and technology (formal cause), under influence of markets and institutions (conditional cause).

According to criticism such explanation is not ‘real’ or ‘ultimate’ causality, which lies in the physics and chemistry of elementary particles, and all causality to be satisfactory must be reduced to that. The mind is based on the brain, which operates on the basis of neurons, ‘hence’ causality and explanation should be sought there. And then ‘we are our brain’. That reductionism, I claim, is invalid and not useful.

How far ‘down’ should one go in reduction? The firing of neurons is an electrochemical process, on the basis of molecules that in turn consist of elementary particles that in turn consist of elementary forces that may or may not be seen as vibrating strings. We are not sure yet. So, to be consistent we should descend to the level where we no longer know. How would that be better than, say, to surrender to belief in God?
The logic of explanation on a higher level is often quite different from that on a lower level. Consider Boyle’s law that when in a chamber a given amount of gas at a given temperature is compressed, pressure is inversely proportional to volume. That was an experimental law, discovered in 1662, which 76 years later could be explained as gas particles bumping into the wall of the chamber. But in the law itself we do not find those particles.

Doesn’t something like that also apply to the brain? Thinking may ultimately be based in electromagnetics of particles, but the latter do not thereby explain how thought works. A mere physiological explanation does not by itself explain why under certain conditions someone choses something.

An important point, however, is that a higher level causal theory must not be at odds with what on the lower level is physically possible. While a logic of thought need not be built up from a theory of elementary particles, it should not contradict what is possible on that level.