Temporal vs. causal order and simultaneity

Before and after (BA) get used in several different ways, but it’s crucial to distinguish two:

  • In time. In this sense, childhood is before old age and the stone age was before the bronze age. This sense of BA is synonymous with being earlier and later, and natural science measures it in seconds.
  • In causality. In this sense, the teams are determined after the last player is chosen, conception happens after fertilization, and we have to turn the steering wheel before the car will turn. This sense of “after” is synonymous with when, and natural science measures some of these ways of being before in units of force, work, energy, etc.

It’s clear that it is a serious mistake to identify causal and temporal BA, or even to make all causal BA essentially temporal BA (as Hume does). Setting up an essential relation between temporal and causal BA means either that saying “old age happens after youth” = old age happens when youth happens, or saying “my trip to the store became pointless after the store burned down” = the store burned down and then, at some later time, my journey to it became pointless.

These different senses of BA require different senses of simultaneous, and so saying that causal simultaneity demands temporal simultaneity iterates the mistake just made. Some cases of causal simultaneity will involve absolute temporal simultaneity (e.g. when conception is after fertilization or the teams are determined after the last person is chosen) others will have what is for all intents and purposes a temporal simultaneity (e.g. when the car turns after we turn the steering wheel) and other cases will involve a causal simultaneity with some temporal duration (e.g. when a building burns down after the arsonist sets the fire or the water boils after it is put on a fire). This last use the word “after” is ambiguous and can refer either to being non-simultaneous in time or being simultaneous in causality, an ambiguity which makes the possibility of confusion and ill-founded doubt about the “simultaneous causes” spoken of of in the Five Ways particularly likely. I wrote a whole series of posts that suffered under this confusion. I’m in good company though, since it is almost impossible to extract Hume’s account of natural science from this sort of confusion about causes.


  1. theofloinn said,

    July 10, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    It seems that simultaneity can also be understood in terms of “begins to become.” If a ball changes from blue to red, the change can be thought of as instantaneous in the sense that it is ‘no longer blue’ from the first moment of change. It is only that the change is ‘not yet complete’ immediately.

    Similarly, the notes of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto are produced simultaneously with Sharon Kam playing them on the clarinet. That these notes may propagate over time even if Ms Kam were removed does not mean that the music is still being produced, only that it is still being heard by an auditor.

  2. July 12, 2016 at 9:05 am

    I think an additional complication people run into on this topic is that ‘simultaneous’ can mean either ‘having the same temporal measure’ or ‘not being different by temporal measure’, and it’s very natural to conflate the two, even though they are not. Only occasionally does it matter, but when it does (as in analytic discussions of Boethius’s account of eternity) the conflation can mess up everything considerably, so that one sees in hindsight that the distinction was really there all along.

    • July 12, 2016 at 10:01 am

      Say more. Is it “not being different in TM” mean that, in causal simultaneity, any temporal lag is accidental to the process? I.e. there might be some temporal lag between turning the wheel and the car turning, but if it were longer (like steering a boat) or even eliminated altogether, it would not affect the sense of simultaneity involved? IS there a good example of “same” and “not different” here?

      • July 12, 2016 at 10:21 am

        The obvious case of when the difference would matter is the sense in which a divine cause is ‘simultaneous’ with its effect, which cannot be a case of having the same temporal measure, because the former has no temporal measure; or of the sense in which all of divine life is simultaneous with all of divine life, because there is no temporal measure at all.

        But even in the case where there is undoubtedly temporal measure, one can distinguish the two conceptually; the most obvious cases being constitutive causes, in which not-different-by-measure simultaneity is a fact about the constitution of the thing, while same-measure simultaneity is a fact about its measurable change. I suspect we can also, for similar reasons, make the distinction when we are talking about how (for instance) abstract mathematical truths are simultaneous with all of their physical instances. The latter case does raise the question of a possible case in which we have simultaneity even with temporal lag — e.g., if the cause(s) in fact necessitated the effect by a logical or mathematical necessity, rather than by some weaker sense of causal connection, then there might be a perfectly reasonable sense in which not-different-by-measure simultaneity is operating even with obvious differences in temporal measure (it’s a sense in which we might say that the effect was already accomplished before it even began to be, and is, I think, the sense people have in mind when they are talking of things being already fated). I do not know if this latter is really the case; but if the distinction between the two kinds of simultaneity can be made, simultaneity even with time delay is not, as it might first seem, an obvious contradiction, and its denial at least requires serious argument.

        Time before-and-after obviously involves same-measure simultaneity by definition (even if, as in relativity theory, the measures may be different according to means of measurement) because the latter is just equality given time before-and-after. But when we are talking about causal before-and-after I suspect we can talk about either kind of simultaneity. It doesn’t make a big difference for practical purposes.

      • theofloinn said,

        July 12, 2016 at 10:45 am

        I wonder if “concurrent” might be a better term for some kinds of simultaneity. Simultaneous is often used to mean instantaneous, meaning that the effect occurs the instant of the cause, whereas it really only means the effect begins-to-occur the instant of the cause. When Sharon Kam plays Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto there may be a momentary lag between her breath and the vibration of the reed, the vibration of the air column, etc. But we cannot deny that the existence of the music depends on Sharon Kam concurrently playing the instrumental cause. Similarly for the end: Even though the echos may linger in the air or the sound not reach the farthest listener at the exact moment when she ceases to play, it is still correct to say that the music depends on its being on Sharon Kam. Thank goodness for the present perfect tense in English.

      • July 12, 2016 at 2:58 pm

        I wonder if “concurrent” might be a better term for some kinds of simultaneity. Simultaneous is often used to mean instantaneous,

        In Aristotle the idea of before and after seem to mean position or magnitude first (six is before nine, Ventura is after Santa Barbara) and then time later, but for us it seems to mean time first and everything else after this. Nevertheless, I think there is some sort of unity of magnitude, time, and causality in before and after, and “simultaneous” is the negation of this. Though we could say that there are different ways of expressing the negation of before and after: equal, simultaneous, and concurrent.

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