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Causation

Updated: Feb 14

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis


An Opinionated Philosophical Dictionary

 

Causation


The world has a cause-and-effect structure. If it did not, we couldn’t even call it a world. We couldn’t call it anything. We do not view the world as a jumble of haphazard events. If it seems so, we attribute that to our ignorance or confusion, not to the world itself. Even when our knowledge of causes is limited, unknown, contested, or complicated with respect to some state of affairs, we do not—if we are in our right minds—assume that anything (1) comes into being or (2) changes its state of being or (3) ceases to exist without some manner of cause. (1) is an essential premise of the kalam cosmological argument.


1.    Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence.

2.    The universe began to exist.

3.    Therefore: the universe has a cause of its existence.[1]


Consider the interpretation of an anomalous event. Suppose that while teaching one of my classes, a miniature hippopotamus with blue skin appears floating near the ceiling in the middle of the room and begins to twirl around while spitting sparks from its angry mouth. This highly anomalous event, however unexpected, must be attributed to a cause of some kind. Perhaps mad scientists or space aliens are trying out a new technology for fun. Or perhaps we are all hallucinating the same thing at the same time. However, no one in their right mind would say, “It was an uncaused event.” No matter how odd the event or how arcane the causal attribution, to assign no cause to a positive occurrence is positively irrational. In the case of the hippopotamusophany, the best explanation is (unless you are God), “It must have a cause, but I know not what it is” (in good Lockean fashion).[2]


Causes and Explanations


The identification of particular causes is a necessary part of explaining something, but may not give a sufficient explanation for something. Consider a car crash. I attribute the damage caused to car A by car B to a head-one collision between car A and car B. This, however, does not explain why the car crash happened; it does not explain the cause of the event; it only describes part of the event itself—the cause of the physical damage to both cars.

To derive a sufficient explanation, several causes need to be combined to form the necessary and sufficient conditions for the event. With the car crash, the cause of the aberrant outcomes must be determined in a way that a sufficient set of causes is identified that explain the event. Considering the car crash, perhaps the driver of car A was intoxicated to the degree that he steered his car into oncoming traffic, thus causing a head-on collision. But then we could ask what caused his intoxication, and so on. The largest question pertains to the meaning of the event spiritually and morally, and our access to those facts is limited. We can say that God caused it in the sense that his providential control extends to all events, but that does not answer the question of why; nor should it take away from the secondary causes involved. As chapter three of the Westminster Confession states:


1. God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass [Romans 9:15, 18; 11:33; Ephesians 1:11; Hebrews 6:7]; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin [James 1:13171 John 1:5] nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established [Prov 16:33Mat 17:12John 19:11Acts 2:234:27-28].


Causation and Reductionism


If two few causes are attributed to the account of an event, reductionism may occur. For example, philosophical materialists claim that humans are entirely physical, having no separate immaterial aspect (mind or soul). Thus, they must explain everything about human beings using only the explanatory power of chemistry, biology, and physics. Thus, they must explain consciousness (including intentionality, propositional attitudes, cognition, and feeling) given only the resources of natural science. This project fails, as I have argued in “Human Uniqueness: Consciousness and Cognition” in Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed., (InterVarsity-Academic, 2022).


Causal and Logical Relationships


Causal relationships should also be distinguished from logical relationships, although they are related. If we reason:


1.    If P, then Q

2.    P

3.    Therefore: Q (modus ponens)


We cannot say that P caused Q in the sense that a physical collision caused the damage to the cars just mentioned. However, we can say:


1.    If two cars get into a head-on collision (P), then they will both be damaged (Q).

2.    Two cars got into a head-one collision (P).

3.    Therefore: both cars were damaged (Q). (modus ponens)

 

This is a valid deductive argument.


 No Infinite Causal Regress


Our last point forestalls infinite causal regress. Causal explanations need to come to an end; put another way, any causal series requires an absolute beginning. To day that 1 was cause by 2 and 2 was caused by 3, ad infinitum is to fail to give an adequate causal account of the entire series of causes and effects. I develop his in The Knowledge of God in the World and in the Word: An Introduction to Classical Apologetics, but consider this principle.


The principle of linear causation: For any contingent physical state of affairs in a linear series, there must be some antecedent and original state of affairs that serves as the causal explanation of the resulting physical state of affairs that is itself not contingent on any antecedent state of affairs.[3]


I will not advance the argument here, but this principle contributes to a cosmological argument for the existence of God as the First Cause of the universe. God, being a self-existent Being, requires no cause, unlike any contingent physical (or non-physical, for that matter) state of affairs (Acts 17:25).[4]

 


[1] See Douglas Groothuis, “The Cosmological Argument,” Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity-Academic, 2022).

[2] John Locke famously said this about the idea of substance, given that as an empiricist it didn’t fit his epistemology. Not so for a rationalist, such as Augustine, Anselm, Descartes or myself.

[3] Groothuis, Douglas; Shepardson, Andrew I. The Knowledge of God in the World and the Word: An Introduction to Classical Apologetics (p. 92). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.

[4] See Groothuis, Shepardson, 89-95.



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This afternoon, my friend and I were talking about Jesus as the sustaining cause in light of Colossians 1:17 NET "He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him." Our coming into existence originates in God and our sustaining existence relies upon God. Thus, Deism falls short of an accurate explanation for human existence.

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