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Extra-Causalism and the Unity of Being

Peter Loptson
University of Saskatchewan

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ABSTRACT: This paper identifies a thesis held widely in contemporary empiricist and naturalist metaphysics, viz., causalism — the view that to be is to be part of the causal structure of the world. I argue against this thesis, defending what I call extra-causalism. Claims that entities with no obvious causal role, like unexemplified properties and points of space, are unreal, or, if they are accorded reality, that they must have some discoverable — perhaps merely counter-factual — causal significance, are dogmatic and ad hoc. Another view logically independent of causalism, but often held by its advocates, is what may be called the thesis of ontic levels, the idea that there is a primary or basic sort of being (usually accorded the entities of the natural sciences), and at least one derivative or non-basic kind of being. I argue against this as well, claiming that extra-causalism and the unity of being are compatible with a fully naturalist and empiricist view of the world. Metaphysical causalism appears to involve misunderstanding the actual character and aims of natural science.

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The causalism/extra-causalism contrast as intended here is a shifting continuum of opposing positions, not a single thesis and its denial. Some causalists, for example, accord universals what may be regarded as a secondary causal role. The sky's being blue or an apple's being sweet may have effects, and in virtue of those facts the constituent universals are parts of a causal story, the causal network of the world. Such a causalism as this insists only that putative entities making no contribution to this network are in fact pseudo-entities. So realism with regard to universals or other abstracta need not imply extra-causalism. Only a Platonic realism i.e., a position affirming the reality of unexemplified universals will do this. Causalists then need not be nominalists, and extra-causalism is not established merely by refuting nominalism. Further to these complexities: it may be, as some think, that some properties are contingent consequences of the existence of concrete particular things (for example, the properties of being a VCR, or the property of being taller than Napoleon, may be properties that only are real as consequences of the existence of VCRs and Napoleon, respectively), and while some would argue that the relevant consequence is logical, there may be a reasonable case for viewing it as causal. But at any rate some properties, at least, will exist non-contingently if Platonism is true, and these properties, at least, will not be causes or effects of anything.

Extra-causalism does not require Platonism however. Otherwise put, there are other ontological theses which will imply or motivate it. Among them is belief in the independent reality of points, or larger units of time or space independent, that is to say, of particular objects, states of affairs, events, or facts, to occupy them. Neither places nor times have causes or effects; not, at least, if those places and times are real regardless of whether particular items occupy or are located at or in them.

I want to argue also for two theses about being or reality that, while independent of extra-causalism, will make it a more substantive or consequential view than it might otherwise be thought to be. The first of these is that being or reality is a single kind or type. The second is that being or reality does not admit of degree. To affirm the first is to side with Russell, Quine, and many others against Meinong, McTaggart, and others; and to hold that being, existence, subsistence, being real, being an entity are all equivalent, and necessarily so. It is to maintain that 'being' is univocal, and is the same thing whatever it is applied to. To affirm the second is of course to deny that well-known view of Plato's, famously met with in the 'divided line' analogy of the Republic. But is it also, as it is meant here, to deny that there are things with 'basic' or 'fundamental' or 'ground-level' being, and others that are, but not basically. Such theses as the latter have appeared particularly prominently in both Aristotelian and empiricist philosophy in the second case especially in the twentieth century. Daniel Dennett, for example, contrasts the items of hard science, which have basic or fundamental reality, with entities that, if real at all (Dennett seems not to care whether they are or not), have non-basic or ersatz being. Dennett's list of things with the latter include, interestingly, pains, and "haircuts and collars and opportunities and persons and centers of gravity."(1) The view I advocate is that there are no second-class beings, either in the sense of having less being than some other things that also have being, or in the sense of having a being that is derivative or constructed from, or parasitic upon, or less genuinely a matter of being at all than, the being of other things. It is not denied of course that many things only have being because of the being of other things, that in many cases things are parasitic upon or constructed out of others; rather, that in any such cases the being that these things have is anything other than the being that the most basic, fundamental, or primary things have. In respect of being, at least, all things with any possession of or participation in it do so altogether, equally, and on all fours with each other. There are no such things then, in my view, as what Sellars called "Pickwickian" senses of being. I will call the thesis about being I advocate, with its two distinct components, the unity of being thesis.

The unity of being thesis will, if true, make extra-causalism more substantive because it will eliminate what would otherwise have been the option of treating items without causes or effects as things with attenuated or second-class or parasitic being. The latter contrast would permit a modified extra-causalism which would allow that some real things lack causes or effects, but only the second-class ones; all the entities with basic, groundlevel, or primary being would be causes or effects.

It will be appreciated that in the nature of the theses being advocated they are very basic or fundamental theses somewhat special kinds of argument could, alone, be marshalled, on one side of the theses or the other.

The best argument for the unity of being thesis is, I think, that in respect of its first component thesis, denying it violates Occam's razor and confuses subclassifications of reference with subclassifications of sense. That beagles and collies are dogs does not make 'dog' equivocal as applied to each. Likewise with 'is', 'is real', and putative synonyms, as applied to comets, neutrons, numbers, and symphonies. Senses should no more be multiplied beyond necessity than any other sort of thing. The second component thesis is best defended by the argument that its complement, or denial, is only problematically coherent; or only has such coherence as will make it succumb to the first argument. That x's are reducible to y's doesn't so long as x's are still granted to exist taint or colour or revise x's existence. Similarly if x's are parasitic upon y's.

One very direct reason for believing that extra-causalism is true is that entities that do not appear to have any role in the causal structure of the world nonetheless seem to be real. For example, there does really seem to be such a thing as what it would be to be an intelligent Martian, or a world war fought in the 3rd century. And the point of intersection of the Greenwich meridian and the equator at a given nanosecond seems to be an actual location in space. A helicopter could hover directly above it.

It was suggested earlier that versions of causalism might successfully encompass some abstract or immaterial things under the umbrella conception of their being constituents of facts or states of affairs that have a causal role in the world. And possibly ingenuity, and a sufficient degree of counterfactuality (a willingness to assign something a causal role if it were in principle possible that it be a part of a complex that would have a causal role), might permit construing anything someone wanted to assimilate to the causal in this attenuated way. But, it will be clear, ontic conviction precedes the application of ingenuity, and survives any reverses that ingenuity might meet with.

This suggests a kindred argument for the extra-causality position, which may be conceived as a version of Moore's open question argument.

(C) x exists iff x is a cause or effect

is, if true, informatively, contingently so. It is certainly not analytic. The sense, or Sinn, of existence is extra-causal. Moreover, we can think the thought of something existing but being outside the causal network of the world. Thus, we can think the thought of unicornhood existing, or the centre of gravity of the solar system at the first instant of the 21st century. In fact, affirming (C) involves, and expresses, resolve, and decision. Some metaphysicians say that they mean only to take to be real what is in the, or a, causal chain. But the very resolve belies the necessity of so proceeding. And if (C) is contingent, then there are worlds where it fails to be true, i.e., where some things exist extra-causally. But some such worlds will be indistinguishable from the actual world, save allegedly for (C) and its consequences. But then there will be no reason not to hold (C) false of the actual world too. So (C) is false.

Extra-causalism and the unity of being thesis, then, are both true.

Why, it will reasonably be asked, affirm them? What views, or whose, are denied if they are held true? And what will it matter anyway, one way or the other?

The numbers of contemporary causalists are large. Most varieties of physicalism (or materialism) are also instances of causalism, insofar as the physicalist position is affirmed comprehensively as offering, or pointing to, an exhaustive inventory of the real. Many empiricist and naturalist philosophers have supposed, or have argued, that their views of the world require or are enhanced by a particularly lean or sparse ontology, and specifically one that will countenance spatio-temporal particulars or individuals, and some minimal set of additions to them. Such convictions, or intuitions, appear with the first empiricist and naturalist philosophy, in Democritus and Epicurus; and in a modified form in Aristotle. Ever since lean ontology grounded in the perceptible has been a hallmark of empiricism and naturalism. In recent decades this focus has been displaced clearly merely laterally and in the same spirit with metaphysical commitments to the world's causal structure.

I want to defend the idea that while Occam's razor is a sound principle, and both clarity and linkage to the observable are understandable and plausible, conclusive or privileging commitments to spatio-temporal particulars or to causes and effects are more expressions of what is essentially romantic sentiment or of aesthetics than of scientific, naturalist, or empiricist ontology as such.

Extra-causalism, as I would wish to use it, is not part of an agenda that would weaken or qualify an essentially scientific or physicalist or naturalist view of the world, and of our place within it. The agenda it contributes to, for me, is part of a claim that science does not in fact have so clearly focused an attention on existence as philosophy does. Philosophers want deeply and centrally to know what exists, what is real and what its character is. Scientists also do, but not in the same paramount or centre-of-view way. They want to understand and explain the world and its experienced constituents. This need by no means lead very directly to fundamental theories about the whole of existence, or reality, or all of the kinds of things that for one reason or other may be or ought to be regarded as real. Few scientists, for example, feel any challenge that in any way connects to their work, in the ontological status that ought to be accorded numbers or other mathematical entities. It does not seem right to say that that is just because they mostly haven't yet got around to the physics of mathematical objects. Rather, the inference to draw is that fundamental physics only partly coincides with fundamental metaphysics, or ontology; more specifically, that fundamental physics does not aim to produce, and does not even operate with usefully identifiable assumptions about, an elemental set of existence postulates.

My aim here then is not simply to refute, or puncture, causalism. The latter is prompted not merely by what we might call ontological minimalism: heroic commitment to the smallest stock possible of kinds of things. More importantly causalism is meant to express, or reflect, the or a scientific point of view. It is supposed to affirm (part of) how metaphysics should look if we suppose that (metaphysically realist) scientific naturalism is the soundest guide that there is to the objective or intrinsic character of the universe. If putative entities are dubious or problematic proportionate to their distance from the core items of theoretical physics, it is understandable that the causal structure of the world, and the items necessarily involved in it, should be 'centred' or 'privileged' for ontology.

Though this outcome is understandable, I want to argue that a genuinely scientific or naturalist or empiricist point of view, or set of commitments, does not require, or even significantly lean to, causalism. This large aim can only of course be intimated and sketched in the time available to me here, with, I hope, the beginnings of plausible argument in the direction of its realization.

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(1) Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991, p. 460.

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