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On Causality

    When most people hear the word "causality", the idea of "cause and effect" comes to mind almost immediately. Simply speaking, something exists, and this makes something else exist. This traditional conceptualization of causality, however, is highly problematic.

    The traditional notion of causality identifies a relationship between two or more existents. It postulates that everything is caused by something else, and causes other things. This idea necessarily leads to an endless stream of inquiries, and ultimately to the choice between accepting an arbitrary, supernatural principle, or rejecting all knowledge altogether.

    We can illustrate the point by asking "why does water boil when it's hot enough?". The answer, under traditional causality, would be: "because enough heat will break the hydrogen bonds between water molecules". If everything has a cause, however, one must ask "What causes that?". We can answer that "the increased vibration disrupts the orbit of the electron shared by two molecules".

    "Why is that?" can be asked ad infinitum, until one reaches the end of their specific knowledge. At that point, there are only two choices. One option is to reject knowledge altogether, due to not knowing a specific thing - after all, if everything is caused by something else, you can't claim to know something without knowing its cause. The other option is to postulate an arbitrary, unquestionable starting point, like "such is the will of God". Traditional causality leads to the vicious alternative between rejecting knowledge, or fundamentally warping it.

    One of Ayn Rand's most important developments was her original understanding of causality, not as a necessary "cause and effect" relationship between different existents, but as a relationship between two types of existents: entities and actions. To Rand, causality is a corollary of identity - it means that every action is necessarily performed by an entity, and is defined by its identity. In that context, the answer to "why does water boil when it's hot enough?" is "because that is the nature of water". Knowledge about the underlying processes involved in the boiling of water can be acquired by further scientific research, but there is no need to identify an "ultimate cause" to validate the original observation.

    Although Harry Binswanger explicitly adopts Rand's version of causality, his Direct Realism implies its traditional version. To say that consciousness starts with the integration of physical sensory input by the nervous system, is to say that the nervous system (one existent) causes consciousness (another existent). In that context, to say that living beings' actions are self-generated is to say that the bodies of living beings (one existent), are the cause of their consciousness (another existent).

    In contrast, my Analog Realism is based on the complete adoption of Randian causality. Consciousness is not "caused" by a living being, or a specific part of it. It is an action of the living being, caused by its identity qua integrated being. "Self-generated", in that context, does not mean that it "creates" the action, but that the action is performed by the living being, and is defined the identity of it's "self" - by its identity as an integrated being, not by the identity of one of its parts.

  -  June 17th, 2020

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