The Nature of Physical Reality: A Philosophy of Modern Physics

By Henry Margenau | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 19
Causality

19.1. TOTAL AND PARTIAL CAUSES

THE WORDS cause and effect are among the most loosely used in our language. Elsewhere in this book, when we faced a similar tangle of usage and desired pentecostal illumination, we turned trustingly to science for a decision on the proper meaning of words. Unfortunately, we shall find science of no help in our present quandary, for cause and effect are not primarily scientific terms, despite widespread opinion to the contrary. Science uses them with no less a variety of meanings than does common speech, and, it may at once be noted, the more sophisticated mathematical investigations of science do not use them at all. When scientists talk about causality, they do not talk as experts in a technical field, as they do when discussing the meaning of force or energy or enzymes or mutations. The followirg pages contain ample evidence of this.1

Causality presents no problem if we are willing to accept the most indefinite of all possible cause-effect relations, namely, that which speaks of causes simply as attendant circumstances of an event, process, or thing. In that loosest sense, pneumonia may be the cause of a person's death (although patients often recover from this ailment), the sun's attraction the cause of the earth's motion in an elliptic orbit, the sculptor the cause of a statue, and the triangle the cause of the fact that the sum of its angles is 180°. What these statements have in common is a reference to a very vague kind of relation between two situations, exhibiting hardly more than an opportunity for us to say, in retrospect: Had it not been for the one (cause), the other (effect) would not have

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1
The damaging implication with respect to the contents of this chapter is intended.

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