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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Chapter Five Summary of Stephen Mumford's Metaphysics

     Chapter five of Stephen Mumford’s Metaphysics presents the topic of, ‘what is a cause?’. Mumford points out a few scenarios explaining three different out comes to causes; changes caused, changes uncaused, and causes without change. The first, and perhaps most common, are changes that are caused. For example me kicking a ball causes it to move. I was the cause for the change in the balls location. There are, however, changes that are uncaused like the Big Bang theory. Mumford explains, “That sounds like a change, therefore, but we are also told that it is uncaused because nothing existed before that might have caused it.” (p.45). There is no (currently) known cause for the change in which our universe was created. The final example is a cause without change. Magnets are an example of this cause without change, instead they produce stability or equilibrium according to Mumford's text.
Cause gives us a way to connect everything together. David Hume called causation ‘the cement of the universe’ for without it, we cannot connect anything to anything else and nothing would matter to anything. For why else do we do anything? We do because we expect an outcome. Actions produce causes and/or changes. Causal connections are what we use to navigate our world and our lives. It is some what of a tool we use to try and predict an outcome. Mumford uses a nail and hammer as an example to show this theory. I hammer a nail into a wall because I know when I strike the nail with the hammer, it will sink into the wall… or so past experiences and knowledge tells me. If a different outcome were produced, say hitting the nail turned it into a chicken, then the act of hammering it would be pointless in reference to my hammering it since that is not the outcome I am expecting or trying to achieve. Thus, pursuing the need to understand causal connections becomes a necessity in our world in order it achieve knowledge and awareness in our universe.
In the pursuit of understanding causal connections, philosopher David Hume suggested that these causal connections are unobservable. Me kicking a ball for example, you can see the kick and you can see the ball move, however Hume states you cannot see the actual causation between the kick and the ball moving (p. 47). Hume proposes that instead, we notice patterns. I have seen a kick followed by a ball moving many many times therefore I recognize the pattern of a ball moving after a kick. “The world is then being understood as a patchwork of unconnected events, some of which just happen to fall into patterns.” (p.48). 
My personal view is that this seems a bit too vague and random. To say a cause is determinable I feel is a bit too bold of a statement. At best we can say something is probable or plausible, but defiantly not determinable. For example, if I flip a switch and a light turns on, Hume would say the cause of the light turning on is flipping the switch. Well, what about when I flip the switch and the light bulb is burnt out? The light bulb will not turn on, even though previous experiences and the recognized pattern is that after flipping a switch, a light turns on. I can say after flipping a switch it is PLAUSIBLE or PROBABLE that the light will turn on, but certainly not DETERMINABLE. Or perhaps would Hume suggest that I have not discovered the root of what causes the light to turn on, electricity? The switch still must be flipped in order to activate the electrical flow to the bulb to light it though.


Upon further research, I found a few other theories of causation. I will only touch on a few as there are many more out there then I realized. Counterfactual conditionals, statements containing an if-clause contrary to fact (If I hadn’t eaten the salad, I would have had room for dessert). This may not be true however. Even if I hadn’t eaten the salad, I could have eaten more breadsticks with dinner and still not had room for dessert. The counterfactual is false, the salad made me full however even without the salad there I still would have gotten full on breadsticks thus creating a causal redundancy which in philosophy is a problem.
Another theory is Causal Selection. I found an example as follows, imagine, “a car swerves onto the pavement, injuring a pedestrian; had the pedestrian not been there, she would not have been injured; but say that the driver caused the injury, and may blame her and punish her as a result. The problem is dismissed by Lewis, who thinks that all causes are equal, and that we discriminate invidiously between them depending on our interests. However several people have questioned whether this attitude really does justice to the fact that our applications of causal concepts are so ubiquitously selective.” (Broadbent). Another theory is Agency or Manipulation theory where a cause is something which we consider to be a useful handle by which to manipulate the world, or – by extension – which we can imagine some suitably placed agent manipulating (Broadbent).
There seems to be a treasure trove of theories out there on causation and I hope to dive a bit deeper into a few of these areas for future research.

Works Cited:
Broadbant, Alex. Studying Causaton: Research guide. University of Cambridge.

1 Oct 2007. accessed 3 Feb 2017.

1 comment:

  1. "There is no (currently) known cause for the change in which our universe was created." - But, we're getting closer and closer - to within less than a billion light years, anyway - to a glimpse at the earliest state of things post-Big Bang. Presumably we'll learn more about possible primordial causes of the expanding universe. It may be, however, that our conception of "cause" just isn't large or supple enough to express the seemingly inexpressible paradox at the heart of the very concept of "creation ex nihilo"... seems like we may be coming up against hard conceptual limits here. The philosopher, though, usually says we should push hard at hard limits to see if there's any give either in them or us.

    Hume's "cement" turned out not to be so hard, but rather kind of squishy, and led him down a skeptical rabbit hole. You're right, his own premises don't allow precisely determinable causation but they still cry out for a practical response to the "patchwork of unconnected events" that feels much too patchy. My preference is for Wm James's radically empirical response, which finds the world of our experience to be shot through with continuity (including that between light switches and light/darkness) and not so much disconnected patchiness.

    "I hope to dive a bit deeper into a few of these areas for future research." - Great, go for it! I look forward to your next dispatches...

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