# No such thing as a hierarchical causal series in the real world

Metaphysicists emphasize the difference between a temporal causal series, and a hierarchical causal series. The most commonly used example of a temporal causal series is falling dominoes. While the most commonly used example of a hierarchical causal series is a hand pushing a stick, pushing a rock. But in fact these two causal series are identical, and they’re both temporal.

In the example of the falling dominoes a force is applied to the first domino and this force then passes in order from one domino to the next as long as there are further dominoes. Which depends entirely upon what happened in the past. If more dominoes were set up, then they’ll continue to fall, if not, they won’t. It’s all determined by what happened in the past. In the case of the dominoes, someone had to set them up.

The case of the hand pushing the stick, pushing the rock is exactly the same. Someone in the past had to push the stick. If they didn’t, the rock stops moving. What the hand is doing now is only relevant to what the rock will do at some point in the future.

Every causal series is temporal, it’s determined by what happened in the past.

Thus there’s no such thing as a hierarchical causal series. Stop setting up dominoes, and the dominoes stop falling. Stop pushing the stick, and the rock stops moving. It’s all determined by what happened in the past.

The dominoes was my own example, I think. The classical example of a linear causal series is parent begetting a child.

Once a child is begat, that child’s own power to beget is possessed by them without needing the continued action of the parent. The parent doesn’t need to be there when his child begts his own children. He can be dead and gone.

This is different than the hand-stick-rock because in this situation we’re looking at the continued actualization of the rock’s motion. Whereas in the linear (accidentally ordered) example the action of the prior members is no longer needed for the continued actualization of this potential, the rock’s potential for motion will no longer be actualized if any of the prior members in the series is removed. The actualization of this potential is moment-to-moment derived from prior members.

Part of the error is viewing causality as simply discrete events, which is not how the Aristotlean understands causality, which is more like looking at ontological dependencies. And the difference between the two is that in an accidentally ordered series the prior members do not need to continue acting for the actualization of a potential, whereas in an essentially ordered series they are still required.

We discussed elsewhere the outdated physics of the hand-stick-rock example, but as discussed then the principle holds true and we can update to examples in line with today’s physics, such as considering changing inertial reference frames.

While I think the stick analogy is fine, properly understood, I can understand that it might not be the most obvious possible example.

A clearer one, and one which was utilized in the other thread by Wesrock I believe, is that of something hanging from another. For example, a coat hanger hangs from a coat hanger hanging from another coat hanger that hangs from a coat rack. Take a moment in time and you can see that the coat hanger at the bottom of this chain does not hang on its own in the air; its “act of hanging” depends on the hanger above it, which in turn depends on the hanger above it, and so on. There is no temporal sequence in this singular moment, but there is a clear dependency of causes and effects. The hangers in the middle are not hanging “before” the bottom hanger in a temporal sense, but they are hanging “before” in a logical sense because the hangers above do not depend on the hangers below for their own hanging, but they do depend on the ones above. There is a clear (and literal) hierarchy of cause and effect.

Peace and God bless!

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Two points come to mind, but the more important one, is one that I mentioned in the other thread. Why should we assume that reality needs a moment to moment cause? It would seem as though reality contains within itself sufficient causes to explain all its observed phenomena. Dominoes fall, staffs move rocks, and people have babies, all explainable by causes existing within reality itself.

So if reality did indeed have a first cause, what need is there for that cause to have an ongoing moment to moment role in actualizing reality’s potential. It would seem that reality is perfectly capable of actualizing its own potential on a moment to moment basis.

Actually, taken as a singular moment in time there’s no “act of hanging” at all. The motion of the hangers, or any forces acting upon them is unknown. It’s only when viewed over time that it can be understood as an “act of hanging”. And the forces at work in this act of hanging are temporal. They act over time.

There is indeed a relationship between the hangers in such a singular moment, but it can’t be referred to as being causal. We could for example define an orientation such that one could be said to be “above” another, but such a definition would be purely arbitrary.

To delineate causes you need time.

The purpose of an analogy is not to precisely demonstrate the concept being explained, but rather to provide an illustration for the mind to abstract ideas from. Every analogy is imperfect, otherwise it would be a demonstration rather than an analogy.

In the analogy of the hangers the perception of motion is extraneous and irrelevant, as the point is to provide an image of the concept of a hierarchy of causes. Time is removed from the analogy only because it is extraneous and not necessary for the illustration, but even if we introduce the concept of time the analogy stands. The hanging of the lowest hanger from the ones above it is not subsequent temporally, but logically. If we assume that the whole set of hangers pops into existence at once, arranged exactly as described, and continue in time in this arrangement the analogy stays the same. There is absolutely no need to suggest or suppose that in one moment the top hanger hangs from the pole, then in the next moment the second hanger hangs, and so on down the chain.

This goes to the concepts of potency, act, and pure act. Absolutely wonderful questions, but do you want this topic to veer off in that direction?

Peace and God bless!

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Okay, now that we’re on the same page, I say fine, let’s continue with your line of reasoning.

I presume that you’re arguing that if we examine this one singular moment in time, then we should be able to identify a first cause. I don’t know how you propose to do that, but please be my guest.

So you’ve got these hangers suspended from something, how does that lead us to a first cause?

Oh, I wasn’t arguing for a first cause with this analogy, I was simply illustrating the concept of a hierarchy of causes as opposed to a temporal sequence of causes.

The concept of a first cause, as I am using the term, can only be understood in the context of a hierarchy of causes. Once the concept of a hierarchy of causes is accepted we can work on demonstrating the need for a first cause.

Peace and God bless!

Okay, for the sake of argument I’ll accept the premise of a hierarchy of causes that exist at any given moment in time, so please begin demonstrating the need for a first cause.

Alright, that’s a start. Do you also accept that for a thing to exist it must either contain within itself a sufficient explanation of its own existence (it simply “is” by its very nature), or that it must be caused by something else that exists?

Yup, good so far

Do you accept that a thing can’t simultaneously be in two contrary states in the same way and same sense at one time (i.e. it can’t be potentially existing and actually existing in the exact same sense at the same time)?

No, you’ll have to clarify.

Quantum mechanics suggests that something can indeed exist both potentially and actually, at the same time, from the perspective of different observers.

Fair enough. I won’t be able to devote a lot of time to this tonight (board exam early in the morning), but I will work on a clarification and post it ASAP. In the mean time feel free to post your thoughts about what you think I might mean by previous post so I have a better sense of where you’re coming from.

You posted this while I was typing my reply, so I’ll quickly respond. I don’t have an advanced understanding of quantum physics, but based on my limited understanding this isn’t so. The probability of a thing being in two different states can overlap prior to observation, such that neither state can be deterministically said to be true based on calculation, prior to direct observation of the object itself. An observed object does not exist in multiple states in the same sense, however (the cat isn’t both alive and dead after observation, for example), so the question boils down to what constitutes observation. Furthermore, this is based on one particular understanding of quantum mechanics, not “quantum mechanics as a whole”.

Like I said though, I’m no expert on quantum theory so I won’t do any deep dive into quantum mechanics beyond saying that, using the Schrodinger’s Cat scenario, the observed cat is not both alive and dead in the same reality.

Peace and God bless!

I just wanted to clarify that when you say “in the same way and the same sense at one time” we’re clear that we’re specifically referring to one observer’s perspective. It’s possible that another observer might see something completely different. So to use the example of Schrodinger’s cat, the above experiment suggests that the cat can be dead for one observer, while still in a state of superposition for another observer. Actual for one, potential for the other.

But that’s probably totally unimportant. I just wanted to be clear on the point.

To give you a sense of where I’m coming from let me say that I was hoping that you would begin with the hangers and then trace a line of causation backwards from there to a first cause. I didn’t really want a metaphysical argument for why there must be a hierarchical first cause. I think that if you actually try to trace a line of hierarchical causation backwards to a first cause, you’ll find that it’s not possible. Just as it’s not possible to trace a temporal line of causation backwards to a first cause. Not because the line is infinite, but rather because it’s logically impossible to do so.

Aquinas’ argument is that a hierarchical first cause must be there, but I don’t think that you can ever trace a line of causation back to it.

Just to encourage others to join in, @Wesrock, @IWantGod, @Aquinas11, @Gorgias, I’ll simplify the question.

If I have for example a loaf of bread, what’s the hierarchical causal series for that loaf of bread?

We cannot possibly know. It either has a sustainer, heirarchical cause, or it doesn’t, self sustained.

I don’t think Ringbaur’s findings have been peer-reviewed or replicated as yet.

Not all would agree with his conclusion, “It seems that, in contrast to classical physics, measurement results cannot be considered absolute truth but must be understood relative to the observer who performed the measurement.” I would because our role in the process of scientific discovery is to introduce a way to conceptualize the observations. Ultimately, it is the equipment, how it functions that determines the result and we project a causal agent, ourselves, into the trajectory of events taking place. Consciousness would not per se, change the nature of the reality out there, but rather different measurements appear depending on what is going on in the physical events taking place. The Schrodinger’s cat analogy is meant to illustrate the absurdity, not of nature but of how we interpret the data to have it make sense to ourselves.

To my way of thinking, in a universe determined by specific relationships, which we understand as the laws of nature, there is no true causation within time. What we do perhaps may be though of as a projection of our human spirit, its past-present-future, here-and-there structure onto events happening in time and space. Our free will is an image of the First Cause, whereby we are able to participate in the creation of our eternal self through our actions, which are more than instinctive. The Supreme Causal Agent, could be purely ontological, the One who brings everything into existence. But the Ground of all being not only creates the structure in which we participate here and now, but was also the Divine Author, who created this hierarchy of being, from the sub-atomic, to the molecular, to cells, plants, animals and we ourselves, one step at a time.

First, let me say, awesome post. Not dogmatic at all, and I like that. Just a simple and honest statement of what you believe. Maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not.

I’m a solipsist, so when I make an argument, or point out some piece of evidence like the above mentioned experiment, I’m not saying that it’s absolutely true, I’m just accepting that it’s possible, and any preconceptions that you or I may have had to the contrary might be wrong.

Even if there is a God, what’s true is probably far more amazing than we or Aquinas could possibly imagine, and so none of us should be afraid to question our preconceptions, or to imagine the seemingly impossible.

Now I can’t say whether this is right, or wrong, or just complete bunk, but I like it. There’s a reason why things are the way that they are, and it’s probably amazingly simple and natural. Why shouldn’t it be? And probably none of us are going to be sitting around one day saying “I told you so”. If we’re sitting around at all we’ll probably be wondering what the heck we were all so worked up about.

It’s life folks. Just accept what it has to offer, because I hear that it’s pretty short…and yet it can be pretty amazing too if you let it.

I think there’s a problem in that assertion, and that problem is present in the article you cite. The conclusion that the article asserts is that the particle is “observed” in both states. However, that’s not true. In one case, you have the particle as observed by the laboratory measurer: having taken a measurement, he moves from “both are possible” to “here’s what I observe.” The latter is an observation, while the former is not. In the other case, we have a second person who has not yet made an observation and therefore, for that person, both polarizations are possible. However, that does not imply that they have made an observation, let alone that their observation is different than the first person’s.

So, for the article to state that “that outsider’s observation … diverges from [the measurer’s]” is a mischaracterization. The second person has not yet made an observation; for him, it’s merely the case that both polarizations are possible.

Let’s look at it in a way that (I hope) offers clarity. Let’s suppose that you and I are present when Ghosty flips a coin. He flips the coin, and before we peek at the results, we both know that both possibilities (heads or tails – let’s not get pedantic and talk about coins standing on their ends… ) are possible. Let’s further suppose that you peek first. For you, there’s already a determinate answer – the coin is either ‘heads’ or ‘tails’. However, for me, who are the slower of the two of us to make an observation, there’s still the possibility of both. However, that does not imply that our realities are in conflict. It merely means that you have observed, and I have not.

How does that help us in this case? Well, it means that quantum mechanics doesn’t really say “something can exist both potentially and actually.” What it means is that quantum mechanics is telling us is that observations matter. If one observes and another does not, then it’s clear that different perspectives exist. However, that does not imply that we’re in two different realities – just two different perceptions. (OK… it gets a whole lot more hairy on the quantum level; but still, I think it’s important to note that an invalid extrapolation is being made in the attempt to move from the quantum level upward.)

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