The principle of causality

The principle of causality is not “everything has a cause” or (as it is sometimes put) “every event has a cause”. Both are false, since chance events, as such, have no causes. As Aristotle would point out several times, to think that every event has a cause leads to superstition and absurdity: why did the earthquake happen when I stepped in the bathtub? There simply is no reason. Its a coincidence. All or at least most of history seems to reduce down to mere coincidences- we can usually give no more cause for an event than to say that it happened. Nature abounds in these coincidences too: that tree vegetation should die out just when our first ancestors were in the trees was a coincidence- no one would say that the tree dryed up so that primates would leave it and develop into human beings. Now if someone wanted to say that the primates left so that they might eat; or the tree drew its hydration into its core to keep from total dehyration, then they would be giving in the first place a common sense explanation and in the second place a scientific one, but this is neither here nor there: it suffices now to notice that chance things and events have no causes. (interesting point: for thomists, the statement “everything has a cause” is false, because of the principle of causality- which should be clear in another post.)

In order to avoid this absurdity, some thinkers have said that the principle of causality is “every contingent thing has a cause”. This statement is unobjectionable if “contingent” is taken to mean “can be or not be” or “what is undetermined to something”. Insofar as something is not determined to something, it most be determined to something by another, and this “other” that determines is called “the cause”. Nevertheless, this is not the principle of causality, because even though every contingent thing has a cause, it is not true to say that every caused thing is contingent, for some necessary things were caused. The truths in my mind are necessary, but they did not exist before I existed- and my teachers caused them as mine. To say “every contingent thing has a cause” is true, but it is not a principle of causality, because causality applies to more than the contingent.

This is why thomists say that the principle of causality is “every composed thing has an agent cause”. Every composed thing is caused, because “the composite” is constituted in existence by its parts being composed, and this must be done by some other, because otherwise a thing would have to cause itself before it existed. Similarly, every caused thing must be composed, for causing involves something other imparting some determination to something, which presupposes the determination and the thing being determined. Agent causality, therefore, applies primarily, per se, and universally to the composed- and the modes of agent causality will follow the modes of composition.

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