The asking of questions

Is there anything that distinguishes people from the other animals among whom they live? Obviously there is. People are linguistic animals. They talk to each other using symbols which allow them to communicate on a world-wide basis. Dogs and cats can smell each other (and thereby be familiar with each other at a bodily level), but we can talk about the sense of smell. We can also talk about dogs and cats, and we can share an understanding of all these things in a way that non-linguistic animals cannot. When Fido smells Rover, the smell of Rover is in Fido as a sensation he has (so it is Fido's private property, something that belongs to him, and to him alone, just like his nose). But when you tell me that you have just acquired a dog, I have in me exactly what you have in you (the understanding that you have just acquired a dog). Mutual understanding among linguistic animals is not private property. When it occurs, we share thoughts.8 We often express our thoughts in positive terms. 'Some dogs have fleas' expresses a thought. So does 'It is often cold in Chicago in January'. We can, however, negate statements like these so as to say 'It is not the case that: some dogs have fleas' or 'It is not the case that: it is often cold in Chicago in January'. And, though our ability to understand signs of negation may seem boringly familiar (second nature, as it were), it has at least one major non-boring function. For it allows us to recognize the possibility of alternatives, the fact that things might be other than they are. And with this recognition comes the tendency to ask questions. For questions, after all, are basically designed to prompt us to work out why things are as they are and not otherwise. This, at any rate, is always the case with sensible questions. One can make up silly questions like 'Why is the number 2 taller than the Eiffel Tower?' or 'Why is green heavier than yellow?' Even if each of the words in these questions has a meaning taken in isolation (which I doubt), the questions themselves are meaningless. With sensible questions, however, such is not the case. With these we pose genuine queries because they latch onto genuine puzzles presented by the fact that things are thus and so rather than some other possible way in which they might have been. At least part of the reason that 'Why is John sneezing?' makes sense is because John might not be sneezing. At least part of the reason that 'Why is it snowing in New York today?' makes sense is because it is not always snowing in New York.9

So there are thoughts expressible in statements which can be negated and which therefore naturally lead us to ask 'Why are these statements true?' Of course, there are statements that cannot but be true. '9 is greater than 6' is a case in point. There are also statements which cannot but be false - e.g. 'What happened last year did not happen'. Statements like these, however, do not give rise to the questions 'Why are they true?' or 'Why are they false?' When something cannot be other than it is, questions as to why it is as it is simply do not arise. Such questions do, however, arise when alternatives are possible. Once we understand what the numbers 9 and 6 are, there is no question as to how 9 comes to be greater than 6. Once we grasp that 'it was the case that such and such happened' and 'it was not the case that such and such happened' are simply contradictory, no question arises as to why it is not true that what happened last year did not happen. Things, though, are different when we come to statements like 'John is sneezing' or 'It is snowing today in New York'. Neither of these statements is true of necessity. If they are true, therefore, it makes sense to ask what accounts for the fact that they are true.

Or does it? It should be clear that I am suggesting that true statements which do not have to be true (contingently true statements, as we might call them) raise causal questions. They invite us to ask what brings it about that what they report is true. To be sure, some of them might reasonably lead us to ask questions of a different kind - questions concerning what something is by nature, for example. If I simultaneously throw a plastic cup and a crystal wine glass onto a hard surface, the cup may be unharmed while the glass will probably shatter. Someone might ask, 'Why did the cup survive while the glass was destroyed?' This question is not asking what agent or agents brought about a certain outcome. It is asking what it is about something that explains its fate; it is raising a question to be solved by an account of the natures of certain things. But even questions like these readily lead to questions about what we might call 'agent-causation' (the coming about of an effect by virtue of an individual agent - as, for example, when a stick moves a stone). Plastic cups and crystal glasses, whether shattered or not, do not have to be in any particular place. So one might wonder how some particular cup or glass came to be where someone (truly) says that it was (to fall and remain intact, or to fall and be shattered). Or, rather, one might do so if one thinks that it is reasonable to do so, which not everyone has thought. For it has been suggested that, even where we are dealing with a true statement that does not (absolutely speaking) have to be true, it could be that no agent-cause accounts for what the statement reports.

What does this suggestion amount to? It seems to boil down to the conclusion that, possibly, not everything that comes to pass in the world, or not everything that exists in it, needs to be accounted for in terms of agent-causation, or the concurrent activity of more than one agent-cause. Someone who defends this conclusion is David Hume. According to him, the ideas of cause and effect are distinct, and it is possible for something to arise (begin to exist), or for something to undergo change, without a cause (an agent-cause). As Hume himself expresses the point:

We can never demonstrate the necessity of a cause to every new existence, or new modification of existence, without shewing at the same time the impossibility there is, that any thing can ever begin to exist without some productive principle; and where the latter proposition cannot be prov'd, we must despair of ever being able to prove the former. Now that the latter proposition is utterly incapable of a demonstrative proof, we may satisfy ourselves by considering, that as all distinct ideas are separable from each other, and as the ideas of cause and effect are evidently distinct, 'twill be easy for us to conceive any object to be non-existent this moment, and existent the next, without conjoining to it the distinct idea of a cause or productive principle. The separation, therefore, of the idea of a cause from that of a beginning of existence is plainly possible for the imagination, and consequently the actual separation of these objects is so far possible that it implies no contradiction or absurdity.111

Hume's argument here, however, is a weak one, based only on imagination. The fact that I can 'imagine' something arising without agent-causation settles nothing when it comes to how things start to be. I can imagine all sorts of things which do not, and maybe cannot, exist, and, if I am a movie producer, perhaps I can put my imaginings onto a very big screen. Yet nothing follows from this when it comes to reality. Or, as Elizabeth Anscombe observes:

If I say I can imagine a rabbit coming into being without a parent rabbit, well and good: I imagine a rabbit coming into being, and our observing that there is no parent rabbit about. But what am I to imagine if I imagine a rabbit coming into being without a cause? Well, I just imagine a rabbit coming into being. That this is the imagination of a rabbit coming into being without a cause is nothing but, as it were, the title of the picture. Indeed I can form an image and give my picture that title. But from my being able to do that, nothing whatever follows about what it is possible to suppose 'without contradiction or absurdity' as holding in reality.11

In reply to Anscombe you might say that you can imagine something coming into existence at some time and place and there being no cause of this. But how do you know that the thing in question has come into existence at the time and place you picture it as beginning to exist? You have to exclude the possibility of it having previously existed elsewhere and, by some means or other, come to be where you picture it as beginning to exist. Yet how are you to do that without supposing a cause which justifies you in judging that the thing really came into existence, rather than just reappeared, at one particular place and time? The truth surely is that recognizing that we are dealing with a genuine beginning of existence is something we are capable of because we can identify agent-causes. As Anscombe writes: 'We can observe beginnings of new items because we know how they were produced and out of what... We know the times and places of their beginnings without cavil because we understand their origins.'12 In other words, to know that something began to exist seems already to know that it has been caused, and to know something about its cause or causes. So it appears odd to suppose that there really could be a beginning of existence without a cause (i.e. an agent-cause).13

It seems equally odd to suppose that change in a subject could occur without such a cause. Suppose that my ankle starts to swell. Hume might say 'This could be happening without any agent-cause'.

But what is the force of the 'could' here? When we say that such and such could happen we normally mean that its coming to be is genuinely possible given the way the world is now. Suppose someone says that there could be a change of government in Brazil soon. We would take this to mean something along the lines of 'Many people in Brazil are dissatisfied with its present government, and their votes will bring the government down' or 'Anti-government rebels in Brazil are now sufficiently armed so as to effect a successful revolution'. 'Could', in 'could happen', normally means 'is able to come about given the existence of what is able to bring about certain effects'. In that case, however, why should we pay any attention to the suggestion that my ankle could swell up without an agent-cause? There is a sense of 'could' where it only means 'is not logically impossible', and with this sense in mind someone might say 'Your ankle could swell up without an agent-cause'. But how does such a person know that it is logically possible for ankles to swell without anything causing them to do so? If ankles are things which by nature only swell because acted on in some way, then it is not logically possible for them to swell without anything causing them to do so.

In any case, we do, in fact, look for agent-causes when things begin to exist or get modified. Some people (e.g. Hume) have suggested that we do so only on the basis of 'custom'. Being used to things happening in certain ways, they argue, we naturally expect them always to happen in these ways. This line of thinking, however, is surely wrong. We do not always form causal expectations on the basis of experience. Sometimes we interpret our experience in the light of causal expectations we have. People who have never experienced a tidal wave will normally take very precise (and self-saving) action when told that such a thing is coming their way. Why so? Not because they have personally become accustomed to tidal waves and what they tend to effect. Unless they have studied the nature and effects of tidal waves (this not being something that they are likely to have done by personal contact with tidal waves and their effects), they are probably going to act as they do because of their beliefs about tidal waves, which might well not be based on personal experience of them. They interpret their experience in the light of causal expectations that they have.

And why should they not? We might think that they should not if we suppose that they are disoriented, confused, or even insane. As we all know very well, however, people can form causal expectations which by any interpretation of the word 'rational' are surely rational. I have no serious understanding of (and, given the history of the universe, only a limited experience of) eggs, water, and heat. But I think that I know what to do in order to enjoy a boiled egg for breakfast. My expectations here are based on what I have been taught about the natures of eggs, water, and heat, teaching that I have taken on faith. Are my expectations irrational? If they are, then I have to wonder what the word 'rational' is supposed to mean. 'It is irrational to suppose that putting eggs into boiling water will result in boiled eggs.' 'It is irrational to suppose that hot, solid eggs got to be that way because of immersion in boiling water or the like.' Are we to subscribe to those two statements? Well, people can believe all sorts of things, but I see no reason to suppose that these statements are remotely credible. If they are not, however, then there is something to be said for the view that human causal expectations are not automatically to be dismissed as unreasonable just because they are expectations. And we certainly do have causal expectations, which is why we seek causally to account for what lies before us but does not, absolutely speaking, have to be there.14

If I find gallons of water pouring through the roof of my apartment, I might side with Hume and say that the coming to be of this might have had no agent-cause (this being great news to my landlord, who will not, therefore, worry about me and my lawyers, assuming that he can get a jury or a judge to think as Hume does). But why should I agree with Hume here? You might say, 'You should do so unless you can prove that whatever has a beginning of existence always has an agent-cause (or agent-causes) or that every change that takes place always has an agent-cause (or agent-causes).' But that response seems to imply that we should never believe (or are never reasonable in believing) what we cannot prove, which seems positively unreasonable - if 'to prove' means 'formally to demonstrate a conclusion from premises that cannot consistently be denied'. If we are unreasonable in believing what cannot, in this sense, be proved, then we are unreasonable when it comes to most of what we believe. One might, of course, take 'to prove' to mean 'to supply reasonable grounds for believing something or other'. In that case, however, we can prove that whatever has a beginning of existence always has an agent-cause (or agent-causes) or that every change that takes place always has an agent-cause (or agent-causes). We can say, for example, that something beginning to exist does so at some particular time and place and that something other than itself must therefore be responsible for it coming to be when and where it does (surely a reasonable assumption?). Or we can say that something which undergoes change cannot itself totally account for the state in which it comes to be, since that state is a way of being which is not present in the thing before the change it undergoes, and since something cannot give itself what it does not have to start with (surely another reasonable assumption?).

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment