A Fundamental Flaw in the Standard View

As far as I can see, the standard view is incompatible with one particular finding of modern science—now accepted as fact—that unidirectional actions do not exist and that all physical interactions are instead thoroughly reciprocal; whenever one object exerts an influence on another, the other simultaneously exerts an influence of the same kind and of the same magnitude on the first. If this is true, we should infer that the standard view is false and that all notions deriving from or influenced by the idea of unidirectional actions—such as the concept of mutual manifestation and reciprocal disposition partners—risk being false by the same measure, in so far as they incorporate any aspect of the active/passive or Agent/Patient distinction.

Mario Bunge, in his book Causality, first published in 1959, was the first to note the above-mentioned incompatibility of the standard view with modern science. Later editions bore the title Causality and Modern Science, and all references in this book are to the third edition published in 1979. However, while Bunge came to the conclusion that the standard view is ontologically inadequate, he did not think a concept of causation based on interaction was viable. He suggested we keep the standard view as a methodologically useful approximation. Below, I will go through the details of Bunge’s critique of the standard view, and then argue that he is wrong to dismiss interaction as the fundamental feature of causation. The end result is a total cause conception based on interaction as the fundamental mechanism of causal production. I believe this view is compatible with the theories and findings of natural science, establishes causal connections as necessary in two different ways (see Chapter 5), offers a way to understand constitution and persistence as causal phenomena (see Chapter 6), and which reduces the incompatibility of substance and process ontologies (see Chapter 7).

The idea that interactions are reciprocal is not new. It came to be established as fact in conjunction with the acceptance of Newtonian mechanics generally, and it is one of the features of classical physics that remains unchallenged by relativity and quantum physics. The exact sense in which interactions are reciprocal is expressed most clearly in the third law of motion:

Third Law of Motion : F,on2 = -F2onl

The novelty of my view is therefore not in the characterisation of interactions as reciprocal, but in the suggestion that we can, and should, understand causation in terms of interaction thus defined. To be more precise, it is new that such an idea is defended. Bunge considers the possibility but dismisses it.

The concept of interaction, as defined by classical mechanics, is one that philosophers constantly misunderstand, because of the connotations that the terms ‘action’, ‘reaction’, and ‘interaction’ have in ordinary language. It requires something of a shift of perspective to get a full grasp of the concepts. The claim ‘for every action an equal and opposite reaction’—which is the essence of the third law of motion expressed in plain English—is familiar enough, but it is often misunderstood to mean that the terms ‘action’ and ‘reaction’ denote two ontologically different phenomena, of which the action comes first and provokes the reaction. In fact, it is often understood as saying that ‘for every influence transmitted from A to B, A must lose as much as B gains’, which is really a question of conflating classical mechanics with what the Scholastics called ‘transeünt causation’, a forerunner to the transmission theory (see, for instance, Bennett 1974: 59; Le Poidevin 1988). In other words, the ‘reaction’ is often understood as the effect of the action, and therefore it is assumed that ‘for every action a reaction’ states that effects react back on their causes. On this understanding, causes and effects interact, which is not at all how the third law is understood in science.

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