Just Because

Often answers are in terms of 'what causes what'



Ever run out of time to answer your children’s questions? (It’s not that we don’t have the answers, right?) Well, there’s always the handy reply “Just because!” But suppose it’s we who have the questions, and we don’t have the answers? What then?

We could always ask someone, maybe a friend, that nagging question which we can’t answer. OK, but what if the friend’s answer doesn’t pass muster? Worse still, what if it’s a windy way of saying “Just because!”?

Philosophy, Plato says, begins in wonder. So do our questions. We might never run out of questions, especially if we care about what makes life precious. If that’s the case, we’ll always experience the wonder which they incite.

Even so, we should be able to answer a good many of our questions. And in doing so, we should learn something about what counts as a good answer. Often the good answer we’re looking for turns out to be in terms of “what causes what.”

If we sort through causal answers, we’ll find that “cause” is an analogous term. Its root turns out to be a Greek legal word for a court case. Not so far removed from that is a saint’s cause for canonization, like that just completed for St. John Henry Newman.

As it happens, Newman’s understanding of causality is intriguing and instructive. We’re inclined to think of a real cause, and a real causal explanation, as an explanation of an event as an instance of a causal law. As such, to say that something (A) causes something else (B) is to say that there’s a scientific law such that when (A) occurs (B) necessarily occurs. Think of Newton’s laws.

Newman knew his Newton. Still, he argued that we first understand causality as the power to act for a purpose. Just here an analogy comes into play. We discover causality through our own personal experience. We then extend causality to the world around us and recognize an order in  nature.

This order suggests a network of probabilistic laws. But neither experience nor reason affirm a necessary uniformity in the laws of nature. Elizabeth Anscombe put it bluntly: “if you take a case of cause and effect, and relevantly describe the cause A and the effect B, and then construct a universal proposition, ‘Always, given an A, a B follows,’ you usually won’t get anything true.” And that’s why we need a wiggle room clause like “all things being equal.”

Nor should we insist that all causal explanations are necessary and deterministic. Anscombe borrows an example of a “non-necessitating cause” from the physicist Richard Feynman: “a bomb is connected with a Geiger counter, so that it will go off if the Geiger counter registers a certain reading.” If the bomb explodes, we’ll know why. But it need not explode.

There’s more to be said, and more questions to ask. Here’s an abiding question: “Why do I love you?” Perhaps the best answer, a causal answer, is “Because I am I and you are you!”

The Hasidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk had a riddling riff on this. “If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But If I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.”

Got it?


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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