Causation as a Continuous Process of Production

There are a few friends of powers that, like Glennan, explicitly reject a relational characterisation of causation and suggest instead that causation is a continuous process (for instance, Ingthorsson 2002; Huemer

& Kovitz 2003; Chakravartty 2005; Mumford & Anjum 2011: Ch. 5). What these writers have in common is that they characterise effects as beginning at the same time as the cause begins, and both take time to be completed (wherefore, like Glennan, they deny that the causal relata are Kim-style events). They also take powers to be central to our understanding of causation (for Huemer & Kovitz the appeal to powers is implicit). What is different is that Ingthorsson and Huemer & Kovitz, as well as Chakravartty, consistently talk of objects as exerting influence on each other, while Mumford & Anjum talk of powers doing all the work to jointly bring about an effect, which in turn is again to be accounted for in terms of powers (this will turn out to be a decisive difference in Chapter 5). Huemer & Kovitz, as well as myself, appeal to a greater degree on the manner in which interactions are described in classical mechanics, while Chakravartty, Mumford & Anjum, are more prone to appeal to everyday examples, like sugar dissolving in water. As for the ancestry of such ideas in the history of philosophy, then Chakravartty and Mumford & Anjum appeal to individual thinkers that have entertained similar ideas, mainly to Kant’s discussion of simultaneous causation in the Second Analogy of Experience in Critique of Pure Reason (1787), and to Hobbes’ discussion in ‘Elements of Philosophy Concerning Body’ (1656). Like me, Huemer and Kovitz appeal to a view we find implicit in classical physics. What I want to argue now is that the kind of powerful particulars we are now developing as a novelty was actually the received view across the board of philosophical traditions well into the Early Modern period.

The Standard View

It is possible to extract from the causal realist tradition a view of causal production that has been circulating in philosophy at least since Aristotle, and about which there was a rough agreement among all the materialist schools of thought, with slight modifications and variations. I will call it the standard view. My characterisation of this standard view is extracted from the way the causal realist tradition is rendered in the works of Johnson (1924), Bunge (1979, especially Ch. 2), Dorothy Emmett (1985), Johansson (1989/2004, especially Ch. 12), Dilworth (1996), and Susan Peppers-Bates (2009), as well as in the works of individual thinkers like Aristotle, Hobbes (1656), and Locke (1689). This view can even be discerned in Kant (1787), as an account of how causation appears in the field of apperception.

I discern two main variations to the common theme. First, that while Aristotle listed four different kinds of ‘causes’—material, formal, efficient, and final (Physics: Bk. 2, 3)—the competing schools, and even later Aristotelians, tended to be sceptical to final causes. Hobbes, for instance, argued that there was no intrinsic purpose to the behaviour of inanimate objects, but allowed that intentional agents could initiate actions in order to achieve a certain goal. Intentions could therefore possibly count as a kind of ‘final cause’ (Hobbes: 1656: Ch. X, sect. 7). However, intentions are physically inefficacious mental entities, and therefore can only make a difference to the world by accompanying and guiding the physical actions of an Agent. We can intend to drink water all we want, but unless we reach out a hand and lift a glass to our mouths, our intention will not be fulfilled. Hobbes therefore concluded that final causes should be understood as physical actions guided with intention, and therefore count as a sub-class of efficient causes, only present in interactions involving intentional agents. Jonathan Lowe (2006b) and Uwe Meixner (2008) have recently expressed similar views about the role of the will in guiding physical actions.

Second, the concept of formal cause arguably changed to exclude the Aristotelian notion of ‘essence’, to include only the accidental properties of objects, often conceived of as mechanical powers though still described in much the same way that Aristotle often talks of powers as active and passive. For these reasons, I hesitate to attach the name ‘Aristotelian’ to the standard view, although it is clearly continuous with it in many ways. Indeed, one could argue that much of what today counts as ‘neoAristotelian’ isn’t so much a revival of Aristotle’s original view but of what could better be described as a rational realist mix of Aristotelian and mechanistic ideas; what I call the ‘standard view’. However, I don’t mind calling myself neo-Aristotelian, having noted some of the qualifications that go into that term.

While final causes tend to be excluded from the standard view, the other three Aristotelian causes are usually included, albeit in a slightly modified form. The material cause can roughly be understood as the material entity on which the efficient cause acts, and which provides the raw material out of which the effect is produced. The qualitative character of the effect is determined by the properties of the efficient cause and the properties of the material entity on which it acts, those properties together roughly constituting the formal cause. The efficient cause is then the actual exertion of influence of one material entity on another as they interact. These three components are needed to characterise the production of effects in the world of inanimate material objects, while the issue of whether the production is done in order to achieve a goal, or a good, is only relevant in cases where there are intentional agents involved, acting with a purpose.

According to the standard view, then, new states of affairs are brought into existence when an already existing material body, or complex of bodies, changes due to an external influence without which the change would not have occurred, and the new state of affairs never had existed. The kernel of this view comes out clearly in the slogan ‘whatever comes to be is necessarily born by the action of a cause’; very likely a paraphrase of Aristotle’s claim that ‘in all cases of production there is something that is produced, something by which it is produced and something from which it is produced’ (Metaphysics: 7, 7; 189), and/or Plato’s claim that ‘every thing that becomes or changes must do so owing to some cause; for nothing can come to be without a cause’ (Timaeus: 28a). Typically, the external influence, or cause, is depicted in terms of an ‘extrinsic motive Agent’ (or, simply, Agent), basically some object possessing causal powers, which acts upon another object, that object sometimes referred to by the term Patient since it lacks a similar active power but is instead able to passively receive the influence exerted by an Agent. Accordingly, a cause is the action of some object upon another object, and an effect is the change produced in the object acted upon; or, in other words, a cause is the exertion of influence by an Agent upon a Patient and an effect is the resulting change in the Patient.

When I say that a cause is the action of an Agent upon a Patient, then one should not understand the standard view as saying that a cause is merely the action of the Agent, but the interaction between Agent and Patient; the passive powers of the Patient are equally important to determine the outcome of the interaction. It is this interaction that I identify with a process of production. In other words, the standard view depicts causal production as involving three components: (i) the material causes, which comprise the Agent and Patient conceived of as material bodies,

  • (ii) the formal causes, which are the powers of the Agent and Patient, and
  • (iii) the efficient cause, which is the actual exertion of influence by the Agent on the Patient.

The three components are intimately connected to three fundamental principles about natural reality. The first is the materialistic thesis that nothing comes into being out of nothing or is ever completely annihilated. Craig Dilworth calls it the principle of (the perpetuity of) substance (1996: 53), while Bunge uses the term genetic principle (1979: 24). The latter captures well what I think is the core idea at play, notably that everything has a natural origin; everything comes into being through the alteration of some already existing natural entity from one state to another, due to the influence of some other already existing natural entity. This principle embodies the conviction that there is no magic in the world.

The second principle is the belief that physical action is a distinguishing mark of causal change in the natural world, i.e. any kind of influence exerted by one object upon another. I propose to call it the principle of action instead of what it is usually called, notably the causal principle (Bunge 1979: 26), or the principle of causality (Dilworth 1996: 57). The reason for this change of name is that the principle of causality is today understood very generally as the claim that ‘there is a cause to everything’, and where it is left entirely open what can count as a cause; even neo-Humean regularity can fit the bill. However, in the causal realist tradition it is without doubt the exertion of influence that distinguishes causal from non-causal determination.

The third principle expresses the conviction that the world changes in a regular and determinate way, depending on the properties of the objects involved. This is often taken to be equivalent to the belief that the world behaves according to natural laws. That is why Bunge calls it the principle of lawfulness (Bunge 1979: 26), but it is also called the principle of the uniformity of nature (Dilworth 1996: 55). It is important to point out that this principle does not entail a commitment to the existence of some kind of abstract entities, the laws, which somehow rule the behaviour of concrete entities. The principle is equally compatible with the idea— explicitly incorporated into the Aristotelian view—that objects behave in certain ‘patterns of being and becoming’ in virtue of their intrinsic and universal properties, patterns that we can express in highly generalised law-statements (Bunge 1979: sect. 10.1). That is, the principle is just as compatible with immanent realism—and therefore with powers-based metaphysics—as it is with Platonism about laws. Indeed, when Mumford rejects laws, he is really saying that whatever uniformity there is in nature (and he believes it to be an imperfect uniformity) it is determined by the intrinsic powers of the particulars and not by general laws that directly rule the behaviour of the particulars, or indirectly rule them by determining the causal role of the powers that the particulars bear (Mumford 2005). Anyhow, the three principles described above form the metaphysical framework on which the standard view rests.

Although strictly speaking irrelevant here, it bears mentioning that a Platonist rendering of the principle of the uniformity of nature is only compatible with the genetic principle (everything has a natural origin) if we interpret abstract entities as natural entities. But then again, how such entities can meddle with physical interactions in which influence is exerted is a further difficulty. This is a point of disagreement between immanent realists and Platonists.

There are two salient features of the standard view that I would particularly like to emphasise, because they stand in stark contrast to more recent powers-based accounts. First, that it depicts causal influence as something that is exerted by an Agent on a Patient. In other words—and this is critical for understanding the main point of this book—the standard view depicts actions as occurring between persistent objects, not between events or states, not even when events are understood Kim-style as consisting of a particular (or particulars) with certain properties at a certain time, i.e. ‘a-is-F-at-i/. Second, that it does not depict effects as the product solely of the action of the Agent, but of the sum total of material, formal, and efficient causes; the effect is depicted as the product of the way two or more material bodies act on each other in virtue of their powers to produce a change in those very bodies. Let me explain.

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