Michael J. O'Brien and R. Lee Lyman
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (New College Edition, 1992) provides several definitions of cause; the one under consideration in this chapter is, “That which produces an effect, result, or consequence; the person, event, or condition responsible for an action or result.” Cause is a central concept in human thinking and probably has been for thousands of years. Why do things happen? Why do they happen the way they do? Why do they happen that way as opposed to another? Why do they happen at a particular time as opposed to another? These kinds of questions are so fundamental that it would be difficult to imagine any sapient organism not asking them. Why-type questions, together with the related how-type questions, form the basis of Western scientific inquiry, which is a precise set of procedures designed to ferret out relations between and among natural phenomena and to formulate explanations, or reason-giving statements, for how and why those relations come to be expressed at particular times and in particular places.
One problem that occurs in science is a forced reliance on everyday words to refer to highly specific processes and mechanisms—two terms that themselves are difficult to define. We define “process” as any action or series of actions that produce something, and “mechanism” as a system of parts that function like those of a machine. Perhaps no field of inquiry has been faced with this problem more than Darwinian evolutionism—the study of descent with modification—although a strong case could be made that by extension anthropology and archaeology share many of the same language-based difficulties. When it comes to the word “cause” and all it