There is no act that is not the coronation of an infinite series of causes
and the source of an infinite series of effects
(Jorge Luis Borges ”La flor de Coleridge”, in Otras inquisiciones1952)..

CAUSATION seems so obvious at one level, but at another it is apparently improvable -- At least according to David Hume's theory of causality which has so deeply influenced Western philosophy. In his Treatise of Human Nature (1789) he argues that our perceptions of cause and effect are no more than inferences based on "contiguity, conjugation, or antecedence" -- the ways events are related in time and space. This leaves us pretty skeptical about attaining "truth" (unless you accept that "truth" is our high confidence in a causal relationship, not a necessary reflection of reality - more). Perhaps, said Thomas Reid in 1785, that it is only because we believe that we are the cause of our own actions that even allows us to conceive of causal dependencies in the world. That would make the entire idea of causation a extrapolation from a belief about our own consciousness and will which itself might be an illusion (cited by Stephen Yanchar in "Some Causes with Humean Causality" in Amer Psychol July 2000, p 767). (NOW, it turns out we even have good reason to doubt that our WILL CAUSES our ACTION ! This is because the brain signals for initiating most actions occurs BEFORE we are conscious of them. Our "will" is informed that "such-and-such" has been initiated (sometimes we can stop it before it plays out to consummation) (see The Illusion of Conscious Will, by DM Wegner; Cambridge, MIT Press 2002) more on causes and consequences

PROXIMATE causes refer to those "closest" to the phenomenon at hand: so, for example, the proximate cause of your reading begins with a visual stimulus. There is a chain of causes beginning with the activation of a neuron by a visual stimulus -- but even there we can look at a finer level of resolution and describe biochemical events that affect each other in a way that causes the neuron to react (or not). [Lee Dugatkin offers such an example: the small biochemical change that affects the ability of some birds to perceive UV light (Principles of Animal Behavior 2003:95-96)]

Biochemical changes can affect fitness and thus, looking at how useful traits are transmitted to future generations, we move further along the chain of causes and eventually get to ULTIMATE causes, which may refer to the forces in play at the time the trait was selected for -- a very speculative area by comparison to biochemistry, but one which has made (and validated) some important hypotheses.

Some behavior appears "spontaneously" -- but in everyday conversation that simply means the causes are not obvious.

    the PROXIMATE CAUSE, in most textbooks, refers to "HOW" something works (a description of its physical "connections" -- HOW do you hold your friend's hand?), while ULTIMATE CAUSE refers to "WHY" something works (a description of its apparent function -- WHY do you hold your friend's hand?).

    Where a concern for PROXIMATE causes would seek specific mechanisms, the search for ULTIMATE causes seeks the ways in which the behavioral pattern caused might increase fitness

EXAMPLE: to establish a memory, experience stimulates a specific ensemble of neurons which remain more-or-less active long enough to change structurally and thereby remain more-or-less responsive to activation by some internal or external element of that experience. Once any part of the ensemble is re-activated, the rest of it may quickly follow (cascades of reactivated memories are recovered in a process termed "redintegraton"). This unique "memory circuit" then seems to "migrate" over the hours and days, and years, from its initial activation site centered on the hippocampus to other parts of the brain.

If memory disorders are to be dealt with, we need more details about proximate causation and they are accumulating: "In the past few years it has become clear that the transient sensitization of nerve junctions _ the synapses connecting neurons together _ leads to an almost immediate swelling. The synapses bulk up with more receptors and more neurotransmitters, and become inflamed to make a stronger connection. Then after a few hours, the neurons begin to physically grow, sprouting new and thicker connections to wire in a permanent memory trace. A mass of protein, produced by a range of genes will be employed to build a remodeled brain circuit." (McCrone 2003)

EXAMPLE: An appreciation for PROXIMATE CAUSATION of phenomena of specific concern can sometimes lead one to a common denominator for traits that are remotely related at best! For example, how is the "psychological" problem, PANIC DISORDER related to the bladder disorder, INTERSTITIAL CYSTITIS? MORE This also underscores an appreciation for PLEIOTROPY and the fact that we ask different questions at different levels of organization, but when it comes to practical application, they can converge . . .

There are other perspectives about causation:
    Three traditional ways causation operates: precipitating (sitting in this chair makes it squeak -- an event rather than a state), predisposing (the chair was predisposed to squeak because it was old and its joints were compromised), sustaining (when the air is dry, my chair's joints are more likely to squeak -- a state rather than an event). (of course events and states are matters of temporal perspective, and there is no litmus test for causation versus correlation). Sometimes causes and effects seem necessarily connected, othertimes, contingent (accidentally connected) (like obligate or facultative ?) And then David Hume raised the issue of necessity: unless necessity can be explained, it can't be discussed as a feature of the world, an objective regularity in nature. Or maybe it is a feature of mind -- and for Kant it was a feature of both. (discussed by Patricia Smith Churchland in Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosopy 2002, MIT Press) .

    Aristotle's Four Causes
    "To understand the nature of this significant shift from the old to the new science, we need to focus briefly on one of the most famous scientific statements from that older tradition, Aristotle's idea of the four causes for every natural event. If scientific speculation is, in very large part, a search for rational explanations of cause (i.e., for an answer to this question "What exactly causes this particular phenomenon?"), then, according to Aristotle, there were four possible ways of accounting for that cause: the Material Cause, the Efficient Cause, the Formal Cause, and the Final Cause.

    The material cause explains the phenomenon in terms of the material out of which it is made; the efficient cause explains the phenomenon in terms of the process which puts the materials together; the formal cause explains the phenomenon in terms of the plan or design or arrangement of the materials; and the final cause explains the phenomenon in terms of its purpose (especially its moral purpose).

    So, for example, if we wanted to account for the existence of, say, a house, the material cause would be the wood, nails, glass, concrete, and so on which make up the house; the efficient cause would be the actions of the various workers who constructed it (carpenters, roofers, carpet layers, and so on); the formal cause would be the architectural design and drawings; the final cause would be a moral reason why the house ought to be built at all and why it should look the way it does in the wider context of the community and the world.

    The explanations sought by classical and medieval science were concerned above all with the final cause, that is, with an account of whatever one was speculating about which placed it in the overall moral scheme of the universe, linking that object or institution with a sense of moral purposiveness and hence with the divine structure of the universe (what Plato and Aristotle call the Good and the Christian tradition identified with God). This was the central purpose in almost all the most important speculations of Greek and Medieval philosophy about the natural world, simply because for these thinkers the most challenging fact of life was an ethical and religious concern: knowledge about the world only mattered if it helped people to understand how they ought to behave (i.e., gave them insight into the ultimate standards of morality and justice). Such thinking is called teleological (from the Greek word telos meaning goal), because it seeks explanations for things in terms of their final purposes."

[optional: causation as discussed by Aristotle]



IN LAW: Proximate Cause of an act under review is a key element in assigning liability or responsibility
    "The issue of proximate cause is conceptually one of the most difficult areas of torts. Although most students become reasonably conversant with the basic concepts, this requires a lot of hard work and advance preparation. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the fundamental issues of proximate cause have little to do with "scientific" causation, and everything to do with social limits on liability. Thus, many torts scholars prefer the term "legal cause," rather than "proximate cause," to denote that the principle is socially imposed rather than scientifically determinable. Nevertheless, most courts continue to use the "proximate" language, and we shall too."
    "Another source of confusion lies in the fact that judicial decisions often do not distinguish between actual and proximate cause, using the term "proximate cause" to refer to both. This terminology is unfortunate, particularly since all courts impose both actual and proximate cause requirements. Still, this means that lawyers need to understand the conceptual differences between actual and proximate cause so that when reading a case one can determine in which sense a court is using the term "proximate causation". In order to keep the concepts straight, we will use the conventional terminology of "actual" and "proximate" cause."


    "Imagine, if you will, a pebble being tossed into a calm pond. Ripples fan out until it becomes difficult to discern them. In this metaphor, the ripples represent the potential extent of liability. Proximate cause asks us to determine how far out among the ripples of damage we should hold the defendant liable."
--from Professor John Nockleby's Fall 2002 class notes on Torts at Loyola Law School --

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Feb 22, 2010