On causes of regularities
According to a standard construal, Hume proposed the following analysis of causation:
Event C caused event E iff (1) C was temporally prior to E, (2) C and E were contiguous in space and in time, and (3) events of type C are always followed by events of type E.
This is the prototype of the regularity or constant-conjunction theories of causation. Causation is linked to regularity of occurrence of events similar to C with events similar to E.
In every corner of the universe scratched matches light (when there is presence of oxygen and absence of water sprinklers around, etc.). Let me now ask a childish question: Why is this uniformity? How come scratched matches behave the same way everywhere? Do matches have telepathic communication, saying to each other, “Let’s light whenever we are scratched”? What “coordinates” or “oversees” them, so that they can display similar or repeated patterns of behavior all over the universe?
This is the same question as the question of what ensures the sameness of a law of nature in the entire universe. If one wants to say that something’s being a “law of nature” just means that it applies uniformly all over the universe, OK, then I am asking, “What sustains those laws to be effective everywhere?”. Two electrons repel each other, and an electron and a positron attract each other everywhere in the universe (or so we believe). In virtue of what is the uniformity of the behavior of the electrons and positrons and other things guaranteed? In other words, what causes regularities to hold everywhere? What is the causal infrastructure underlying regularities in nature?
I am not sure, as I am not a Hume scholar, but I don’t think Hume ever asked that question. He used the fact that regularities exist in the world in analyzing the concept of causation, but, as far as I am aware, he didn’t raise the question of what causes regularities themselves. (I am talking about the most fundamental regularities of course, in the sense of Kepler’s laws, for example, being explained by invoking the more fundamental Newtonian laws.) Moreover, given Hume’s analysis of causation above, it is hard to imagine how he (and perhaps Humeans in general) could answer that question without falling into circularity or infinite regress.
One answer to our question may be to point out that electrons everywhere in the universe have the same properties, and sameness of properties causes sameness of patterns of behavior, i.e. regularities. But, first, why should sameness of properties result in sameness or regularity of behavior? Secondly, our attributions of sameness of properties may actually be in virtue of sameness of behavior on the part of the entities. If the notion of sameness of properties is reducible to the notion of sameness of behavior, then the answer proposed at the beginning of this paragraph, namely “Sameness of properties is what accounts for regularities of behavior” becomes tantamount to, “Sameness of behavior is what accounts for sameness of behavior,” which is an uninformative answer. If, on the other hand, properties are not reducible to behaviors, then the question, “How does sameness of properties account for regularities?” is still with us.
Of course, an easy—and perhaps lazy—answer to those questions would be, “It’s a brute fact that there are regularities and laws in the world, and no causes or causal explanations of that fact can be given.” But, first, we can find in the history of science illustrations of the fact that what we take to be a brute fact today may turn out to be explainable later. It may have been regarded as a brute fact in the past that light just propagates, and a brute fact that it propagates at the speed it does. But Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory of light can explain why light travels, and it can also explain why it travels with the speed c, the speed of light. Second, if we are asserting that no causes can or need to be found of regularities in nature, then we seem willing to admit that there are uncaused natural phenomena in the world, viz. regularities. And to say that, we didn’t even need any quantum mechanics.
An interesting answer to our question was suggested by one of my grad students, Pakize Arıkan who took my class on causation in Spring 2007. According to Pakize, my question presupposes that uniformity is something that requires explanation, whereas non-uniformity or chaos is the normal state of the world, and hence requires no explanation. Why should uniformity require explanation? Well, I don’t know, but it seems to me that even if I lived in a totally chaotic universe where there were no regularities and laws of nature, I think I would find some way in the midst of that chaos, of asking what causes all this chaos and orderlessness…
Written by Erdinç Sayan
March 5, 2012 at 1:04 am
Posted in Metaphysics
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