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Tuesday, July 30, 2013


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Bill extends a friendly gesture to me as follows: “if we adopt a regularity theory of causation, then natural causation is not existence-conferring.” I agree pending the following modification of the consequent: “…, then nothing is existence-conferring.” (emphasis on ‘nothing’) Such a modification is necessary, in my opinion, since we are talking here about a Humean account of causation according to which causation is not an objective aspect of the world. All we got objectively in the world are regularities in the form of constant conjunctions. Beyond that causation is a mental disposition projected upon events in the world.

Now, Bill attempts to set up the following dilemma for me: either I accept a Humean account of causation or I offer an alternative. Since he knows that I do not have such a worked out alternative account, he concludes that I must accept a Humean account of causation. Bill thinks that by so doing I am forced to accept McCann’s denial that “natural causation is existence-conferring.”

I object to the last step in Bill’s reasoning. If I am forced to accept anything at all, then I am forced to accept Hume’s own conclusion that causation is not an objective feature of the world, whether natural or divine. If so, then McCann cannot have it both ways. He cannot rely on Hume’s argument for natural causation, but demur regarding divine causation. If McCann wants to solicit Hume on his behalf against objective causation, then he is welcome. But he cannot later on retain God as the only causal agent, without showing why the Humean argument against objective causation (which Bill elegantly summarized in his post) fails to apply to the case of God. So far as I can see, the Humean argument either applies to both natural as well as divine causation or to neither.

I think Peter is on to something here. Existence-conferral is supposedly a relation, but a relation cannot hold if its relata don't exist. But if both relata already exist, then what sense is there in saying existence is being conferred here?

Perhaps the solution here is to say that existence-conferral is the conferral of objective existence, and that, prior to a creature being given objective existence, it exists subjectively in the mind of God. In this case, both relata exist, with the qualification that the creature exists subjectively before existence-conferral.

For good measure, Bill adds the following “little puzzle” on my plate: “if x directly causes y, and causation is a relation, then both x and y exist. But then x in causing y does not confer existence on y.”

I agree that if causality is a relation, then both relata exist. Thus, if x causes y, then both x and y exist. Let us call this conditional the “causal principle”. Whence is Bill’s “little puzzle”? I suppose the idea is this.

In order for causality to confer existence, the effect cannot exist at the same time as the cause; it must come into existence at a later time. But this seems to be impossible if causality is a relation, so argues Bill, since then both x and y must exist, according to the causal principle that causality entails the existence of both cause and effect.

I think the puzzle arises due to two different temporal frameworks. The causal principle is conceived regarding a static four-dimensional universe in which all events are already present. Thus, the phrases “x causes y” and “x and y exist” are taken to be tenseless. On the other hand, when we speak about causality conferring existence, we think about an evolving universe in which the cause temporally precedes the effect. What we mean here is that at a time t event x exists, and y does not yet exist, whereas at a later time t*, y came into existence because of x.

What Bill’s “little puzzle” shows is that we need both temporal frames in order to reconcile our causal talk.

Let me add that Bill’s “little puzzle” applies equally to God conferring existence. For if God created the universe; i.e., God caused the universe to exist, then by the causal principle both God and the universe must have already existed. But this puts to shame the very idea of divine creation.


You are changing the subject. We are not talking about Hume but about (RT), which I think I stated rather clearly. The views of the historical Hume are not under discussion. And note that there is no reference to "mental dispositions" in (RT). A regularity theorist need not (indeed does not) bring in the mind to supply the causal nexus.

You also didn't give me a straight answer to my question. I asked, in effect, whether you think that (RT) entails that natural causation is not existence-conferring. I need a straight 'yes or no' answer to gauge whether you understand the issue. If you answer 'yes,' then we can proceed. But if you equivocate, then we cannot.

You also change the subject when you ask, in effect, whether everything is existence-conferring. We are not talking about everything, but about natural causation, a clear example of which I gave.

You also muddy the waters by bringing in God. We are not talking about God's relation to the world. We are talking only about natural causation and whether it is existence-conferring. I mentioned God only to supply context.

So I repeat my first question to you and add a second: On what theory of causation would natural causation be existence-conferring? This has nothing to do with getting you to accept McCann's worldview.

Let's assume that God does not exist. There remains the question whether the universe is causally self-explanatory. If it is, then the appeal to God would be otiose. And if it isn't then, the atheist can say that the universe exists as a matter of brute fact.


1. I am puzzled by the charge that I changed the subject. After all you begin your post by summarizing McCann's view, the motivation for his claim that natural causation is not existence conferring, and then present a Humean argument to support the later claim. My comment is predicated on this presentation.

2. Let us suppose that I accept RT as an account of one concept of causation. Have I completely abdicated the idea that (natural) causation is existence conferring. Not at all.

What exactly is the problem raised by RT to causation being existence conferring? The argument you give here is essentially the "little puzzle" presented more explicitly later in the post. At this stage you state the argument as follows: If RT expresses what causality is, you say, then "...the cause does not produce, bring about, bring into existence the effect" because "the holding of the causal relation presupposes the existence of the cause-event and the effect-event."

As stated in my response to the "little puzzle" in my second post, this argument is based on confusing two temporal frames. RT defines causation over a four-dimensional static universe. In this sense, causation is timeless. "x causes y" in the sense of RT is to be interpreted timelessly. We cannot express the sense in which causation is existence conferring within a static four-dimensional framework because we are looking at the causal nexus, as if it were, from the outside, once all existence conferring processes have been completed.

But conceding this much is far from abdicating the idea that causation is existence conferring. This later idea, however, can find its natural home only when we speak in a dynamic temporal framework (see my second post on this matter). Confusing the two leads to your objection.

To summarize this portion of my position. I accept RT (for the sake of the present debate) as defining static-causation (in the sense outlined above). However, I deny that by so doing I abdicate causality as existence conferring. However, the later can only be upheld when stated within a dynamic framework. This makes complete sense because to say that causation confers existence is to state a dynamic process, whereas to say that causality is constant conjunction is to look at causality from the point of view of a uniformity that holds in the whole universe. But such a statement has a meaning only when applied to the whole universe.

3. So, now, as to the 'yes' or 'no' demand. The answer is: yes and no. Yes, because RT entails that ONE concept of causation, namely, static-causation, is not existence conferring. No, because this is not the only sense of causation in causal explanations. The other sense is dynamic-causation which is not captured by RT. This is not equivocation, but a time honored philosophical tool of making distinctions when doing so is warranted. And I think that the distinction I am proposing is warranted in general. In addition, it is required, so far as I can see, for the broader project that McCann seems to undertake. But, then, again, it is possible that this last claim stems from my lack of familiarity with the details of his project.

4. I never asked, or said, "whether everything is existence-conferring." I said that the Humean argument entails that "nothing", and I emphasized "nothing", is existence conferring. I thought this to be pivotal within the broader project within which McCann's argument against natural causation being existence-conferring is situated.

5. I am not sure whether I completely understand the connection you make between the question of whether there is a legitimate sense of causation that is existence conferring and the question of "whether the universe is causally self-explanatory" in the absence of a divine creator. I think that both sides to the later controversy generally assume that there is some notion of causality that is existence conferring. It seems to me that the theist needs such a concept of causality in order to express the tenet that God created the world (caused the world to come into existence) and the atheist might need such a notion for explanatory purposes within the physical world. I do not see how even granting an existence conferring concept of causation cuts either way regarding the other question of whether the existence of the universe can be explained without a divine creator.


Your proposal may work to get around the problem, but the price is to give up on a univocal concept of 'existence'. For now we need one concept of existence when something exists only in the mind of God and another when it is realized in the world (i.e., outside God's mind). I do not know about McCann, but Bill might object to such a solution.

Your definition RT gives us a causes relation over events. We could also define a brings about relation. I agree that without further premises x causes y does not entail that x brings about y. But can't the two relations have the same extension?

Hi David,

Thanks for answering the question I put to Peter. It would be interesting to see how you would define 'x brings about y.'

I think the two definitions would have the same extension.

On RT causation is just regular succession. Now if the cause brings about (produce, causes-to-exist) the effect, that too would be an instance of regular succession.

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