Musings On Causality

Musings On Causality

Photo by Joanna Suska

I suspect the ubiquitous idea of cause and effect is slipping away. The West has been obsessed with it for millennia. Admittedly, it has been useful, but it does not appear applicable to everything in our universe. For example, scientists are again investigating the speed-of-light question, whether its limit is 186K m/s, as Einstein postulated. Experiments with neutrinos are being conducted at the CERN  in Switzerland. Writer Leonard Brunk comments:

What does this mean if cause and effect is obsolete? This means one can change the outcome. Cause and effect says if a house catches on fire, that house will burn down as a result; this is what we’ve always perceived as common sense. However if cause and effect is not absolute, then this means one can go back after the effect has taken place and prevent the house from burning down. Or this means after the house is burnt down from the ashes the same house, brick by brick, can arise as if never burnt. Which of these impossible examples sounds less impossible? This is a perfectly valid question, because if what has been discovered in physics recently is confirmed then one of the above two scenarios is a reality. (Personally, I’m more prone to believing the first scenario; going back after the effect) (Is Cause & Effect Obsolete?, by Leonard I. Brunk).

Plato was, most likely, the first Western thinker to formally mention the principle of causality: “every­thing that becomes or changes must do so owing to some cause; for nothing can come to be without a cause” (Timaeus 28a). So, we have had over two thousand years of this idea. But what did more ancient cultures think about cause and effect?

The Buddha had his own ideas as to causal relations.

The Buddha realized that all existing theories were inadequate to express the nature of reality. The unique contribution of the Buddha to Indian thought was his middle way doctrine, which avoided the two extremes of etemalism and annihilationism. The causal theories that were in existence at the time subscribed to one or the other of these two extreme philosophical positions. This is why the Buddha found it necessary to introduce a new term to express his vision into the nature of reality.

According to the Buddha, paticcasamuppada [dependent arising] is not the product of metaphysical speculation. It is an order of nature to be discovered by intelligent beings. He says that whether Tathagatas are born or not this order of nature (dhammatthitata, dhammaniyamata) exists in the world. It is discovered by a Buddha and pointed out to others. It is not be taken as a subjective philosophical thesis, but as a principle that governs occurrences in the physical universe and the psychological processes of living beings. It is discovered by careful observation of nature. 

If there is any relation between any two things A and B such that when ever A exists, B comes into being and with the arising of A, B also arises, and when A does not exist B too does not come into being, and with the cessation of A, B also ceases to be, such a relation may be called a dependent arising relation.

What the Buddha wanted to point out was, that in the observed world there are things and occurrences, which exhibit this relationship. It is an observable fact about the world. Things in the world do not happen merely by chance. There is a causal order or pattern, which could be discovered. When this order or pattern of events is discovered it is possible to explain happenings, to solve practical problems of life, and to predict the future course of events. (from Dependent Arising and the Doctrine of the Middle Way, by Prof. P.D. Premasiri PhD).

 We are not going to solve anything in this discussion. These musings are mostly for my own personal benefit, anyway. The debate has been waged a long time. The fact, however, that we may be close to a watershed discovery, that will turn the ideas of causality upside down, is  very exciting!

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