history of causality

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A brief history of causality and philosophy - philosophical views of causality --
This historical overview of causality not only provides a perspective on the origination of the primary causalities of concern to management -- efficient, rationalist, formative, and transformative -- but it also explains the origination of systems thinking in Kant's philosophy dealing with rationalist and formative causality.

Aristotle (300s BC) --
Aristotle introduced a theory of causality, for the first time in human thought, which brought together elements of various thinkers of his time. He reaffirmed ""becoming"", arguing that change is not an illusion but that humans actually experience nature as change. Reality is not some external given, but an experience one perceives. Humans can trust their experience; indeed, this is the only way of making sense of reality. (Stacey, 2000, pp 195).

In the Aristotelian world, physics was modeled on biology, not biology on physics. For Aristotle, just as the behavior of humans (and other animals) is motivated by specific purposes, so the behavior of any physical object could be explained by understanding its purpose. For Aristotle, an object could only be understood in relation to its purpose or function.

Aristotle's four causes are each a different way of explaining why a thing is as it is. The four causes are four aspects of the purpose of a thing. All four causes together bring a complete view of the object under consideration. To understand an object, one must understand --

  1. its formal cause - the form received by a thing, a form taken by the movement or development
  2. material cause -- the matter underlying that form, a material
  3. efficient cause -- the agency that brings about the change, something to act upon it, an if - then sequence of causality, cause based on what went on before the current state
  4. the final cause -- the purpose or goal served by the change

As an example, the Aristotelian answer to the question of why the statue of David is as it is, is answered as such - Because it was made by Michelangelo (efficient cause) out of marble (material cause) with the shape of David (formal cause) to glorify the Medici family (final cause). For Aristotle, the final cause is final because it is pre-eminent in explaining why a thing is as it is.

See Aristotle's causality for more information.

Bacon, Galileo, and Hobbes (early 1600s) --
The purposive bent of Aristotle's philosophy often lent it an anthropomorphic (suggesting human characteristics for animals or inanimate things) or animistic (the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself possess souls) character. It was this, as well as Aristotle's stress on final cause that caused gravest offence to the new breed of philosophers such as Bacon and Galileo. Thomas Hobbes ridiculed the Aristotelian notion that 'stones and metal had a desire, or could discern he place they would be at, as man does.' (Malik, 2000, pp 32)

As the new philosophy came to dominate the scientific worldview, the teleological view of nature was banished. The functional approach to understanding both nature and human nature that underlay Aristotelianism remained of crucial importance, particularly in explanations of biological phenomena. For example, it is key to Darwinian theory and to many contemporary accounts of human nature.

During the 1500 and 1600s the Aristotelian framework was replaced by one that modeled nature on the characteristics of a machine - mechanical philosophy. The mechanical philosophy rejected Aristotelian teleology in favor of an empirical approach: observation, experiment, and the search for mathematical regularities. The Aristotelian universe, full of purpose and desire, gave way to an inert universe composed of purposeless particles each pursuing its course mindless of others. The only concern of mechanical philosophers was with matter and motion.

The mechanical philosophy did not simply transform attitudes to nature. It also transformed the kinds of questions that one could ask about nature. Nature no longer had to be treated as an organic whole. Like a clock, or any other machine, it could be broken up into its component parts and each part studied in isolation. The properties of complex phenomena could be resolved into the properties of simple phenomena, and through understanding simple phenomena one could begin to build a picture of more complex phenomena. Here lie the origins of the modern notion of 'reductionism.'

The notion of design , as in nature being designed and being able to be understood as a machine, is what Charles Darwin's theory of evolution sought to refute.

Descartes (mid 1600s) --
Descartes, like Bacon, sought to find a way through the scepticism of Renaissance scholarship to establish a new basis on which to found objective knowledge. Descartes method is based on four precepts -
  1. to accept nothing as true which I clearly did not recognize to be so
  2. to divide up each of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible
  3. to carry on my reflections in due order, commencing with the objects that were most simple and easy to understand, in order to rise, little by little, or by degrees, to knowledge of the most complex
  4. to make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I should be certain of having omitted nothing

In an age in which reason meant solely arguing from ancient texts, Descartes' approach was indeed revolutionary. His commitment to arguing from first principles came to be called rationalism. However, Descartes did not believe that everything could be understood as a mechanism. He separated the thinking and rational substance - which constitute the soul - from the bodily substance and suggested that only the latter could be understood in mechanistic terms. Descartes belief in the duality of body and soul has profoundly shaped the modern imagination.

Descartes' dualism, is emblematic in the modern world that embraces ""objective"" natural science but is wedded to ""subjective"" consciousness, where it is impossible to have a naturalistic theory of the mind. This dualism seems emblematic of the tension between a materialist universe and a humanist vision.

Subject and object, Locke's scheme (late 1600s) --
In Locke's scheme, the self has become a this-worldly object, capable of taking an objective view of our thoughts and experiences from the outside, as it were. The philosopher Charles Taylor has dubbed this the 'punctual' self because Locke conceived it as a point within the psyche that is 'disengaged' and separate from the specific actions and experiences of the individual. Eventually the same process would be applied to the self itself, which later generations of philosophers, psychologists, and scientists came to regard as an object that could be empirically known and studied much like any other object. (Malik, 2000, 52)

Subject and object, evolution of the view of self --
We seem to have come a long way from Descartes' idea of the self. We began, with Descartes, inside our heads, looking out on the world outside. We have ended up, after Locke, on the outside, looking in on the self inside. For Descartes the self was the subject, the only means of gaining understanding of the world. Now it has become the object, an integral part of the world which we are trying to understand. This journey is particularly puzzling to the modern imagination because, in contrast to the Ancients, we view subject and object as distinct entities. For both Plato and Aristotle thought was as much part of the external world as it was of the mind inside. The distinction between the internal and external realms is a Cartesian innovation. For the Ancients, there was no clear-cut distinction between subject and object, between thought and the object of thought. Once, however, the inner realm of Man is cleaved from the outer realm of nature, then subject and object become distinct entities. The subject is that which thinks and acts, the object is that upon which thought and action bear.

The punctual self, however, cuts across this distinction, being both subject and object, even as it is the same entity. Animals and other natural entities can be treated solely as objects. In the study of 'external' nature we can create a division between a humanity that is the thinking subject and a nature that presents itself to thought, but is incapable of thought itself. But with the study of Man such a neat division becomes impossible.

Another way of expressing this paradox is to say that Man seems to be both inside nature and outside it. The mechanical philosophy 'disenchanted' nature by stripping it of its magical qualities and rendering it a clockwork universe. It also made Man part of the natural order, and so permitted the possibility of a science of Man. But, at the same time, it created a seeming chasm between Man and nature. In the post-Cartesian world, the distinction between subject and object was recreated as the distinction between Man and nature. Humanity as the active subject had power over, and control of, the object of its attention, nature. This conception of the relationship between humanity and nature allowed philosophers to ask new questions about the natural world, questions without which the Scientific Revolution would not have been possible. It also legitimised new forms of control over, and exploitation of, nature, which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and to modern technological development.

The same process, then, that made Man part of nature, also took him out of it. The mechanical philosophy established, in philosopher Kate Soper's words, 'the paradox of humanity's simultaneous immanence and transcendence':

    Nature is that which Humanity finds itself within, and to which in some sense it belongs, but also that from which it also seems excluded in the very moment in which it reflects upon either its otherness or its belongingness.""

(Malik, 2000, 52 - 53)

Efficient cause - Newton - late 1600s --
Isaac Newton, as a natural philosopher, built a solid foundation for scientific inquiry and understanding with his math and physics describing gravitation and laws of motion. His laws of mechanics revealed an underlying order to the universe and natural phenomena. These laws revealed order that was heretofore undetected in the complexity of nature. His rational approach to enquiry and resulting predictive laws of order showed that rational investigation can make sense of nature. The causality of Newton's mechanics is the universal timeless laws of an 'if...then' kind that Stacey (2000) calls efficient cause.

Newton rational approach, along with his predecessors such as Galileo and Boyle, and their findings about nature, became a guiding light for the enlightenment philosophers addressing philosophical issues, including social issues. Thus the use of natural science as a source domain for what became social sciences was established. The natural philosophy, what today we call science, inspired enlightenment thinking. This type of thinking was applied by Locke, a contemporary of Newton's, to studies beyond the physical, i.e. the mind, and by Adam Smith, nearly a century later, to economics. Smith's ""invisible hand"" in economics an example of a law that revealed an order in the realm of economics, as Newton's laws revealed order in nature. Newton's particular view of complex organization as a machine from the late 1600s ultimately manifested itself in the scientific management of Taylor and Fayol in the early 1900s.

Rational choice and formative causality - Kant - mid 1700s --

Kant's transcendental idealism --
Kant developed transcendental idealism as an answer to the issues raised on the one hand about the human ability to 'know', create knowledge, and on the other hand, the scientific laws of determinism found in nature conflicting with human freedom. In this answer is the groundwork for systems thinking and the two related causalities, rational choice and formative.

Kant's counter to the skeptics and realists --
Kant developed transcendental idealism as an alternative to realism, on the one hand, and scepticism, on the other. His thinking can be labeled as idealism because he held that we know reality through the capacities of the mind and it is transcendental because the categories through which we know are given outside our direct experience. In this way, Kant provided a sophisticated justification for the scientific method.

(Stacey, 2000, pp 21)

Scientific revolution implications --
The scientific method depends on a key assumption -- that reasoning humans are capable of forming hypotheses about reality. Central to the scientific method is the individual scientist who objectively observes nature, formulates hypotheses about the laws governing it, and then tests those laws against quantified data, so progressively moves towards a fuller understanding of the laws. These laws are understood to take the form of universal, timeless, deterministic, linear 'if -- then' casual links. This notion was challenged by skepticism.

The other issue that arose from the scientific revolution, as it spread to all realms of things, is the question of human freedom and choice. Since humans are part of nature, in a purely scientific view of the world, they would also be subject to the deterministic laws of nature and not have freedom.

Kant's response contains the foundation for systems thinking --
Systems thinking can be said to have originated in Kant's answers to the questions of how reality can be perceived and humans can be free.

Kant's dualistic resolution - notion of systems thinking --
Kant was impressed by the advances in human knowledge brought about by the scientific method but he also recognised that it was not sufficient to simply dogmatically postulate that we know reality directly. He accepted that we know what we know through sensations coming from the real world and that the mind imposes some kind of order on these sense data so that we cannot know reality in a direct manner.

Dualism perceiving reality - ""as if"" its real --
Kant therefore postulated a dualism. On the one hand there was reality, which he called noumenal, and on the other hand there was the appearance of reality to us in the form of sensations, which he called phenomenal. He argued that we could never know reality in itself, the noumenal, but only the appearance of reality as sensation, the phenomenal. This bears some similarity to the position of the radical sceptics but Kant departed from them when he held that our inability to know reality itself does not mean that all our knowledge is purely relative, simply the result of habits of association. Instead, the mind consists of innate categories which impose order on the phenomenal.

""Innateness"" is still the foundation of knowledge --
In this way he agreed with the radical sceptics in holding that we could not know reality directly but also agreed with the scientific realists in holding that there were innate ideas that imposed order on experience so that knowledge and truth were not simply relative. Examples of the innate categories of mind are --

  • time,
  • space,
  • causal links and
  • what Kant called 'regulative ideas'.

Regulative and constitutive ideas --
Regulative ideas are to be distinguished from constitutive ideas. A constitutive idea, or hypothesis, is a statement of what actually happens in reality. For example if we say that an organisation actually is a system operating to fulfil some real purpose, then we are putting forward a constitutive idea. We are saying that the organisation really exists and it is really fulfilling some real purpose. However, if we put forward an hypothesis in which we are thinking about an organisation 'as if' it were a system operating 'as if' it had a purpose, then we are thinking in terms of regulative ideas. Obviously Kant would not talk about constitutive ideas because he held that we could never know reality in itself. The activity of the scientist then becomes clear in Kant's scheme of things. The scientist has a mind consisting of categories of time, space, causal links and the capacity for forming 'as if' hypotheses, which enable him or her to formulate hypotheses about the appearances of reality and then test them.

Dualism - locating conflicts in different realms --
Scientists, such as Newton and Leibniz, had understood nature in mechanistic terms and Kant was able to explain why this understanding was neither purely relative nor directly revealing of the reality of nature. He resolved the contradiction between realist and relative knowledge by taking aspects from each argument and holding them together in the 'both ... and' way of a dualism. Knowledge of appearances was real and reliable while knowledge of reality itself was indeed impossible. In a sense both the scientific realists and the radical sceptics had a point and the contradictions between them could be eliminated by locating their conflicting explanations in different realms. This is typical of Kant's dualistic thinking in which paradoxes are eliminated so satisfying the rule of Aristotelian logic according to which paradox, the simultaneous existence of two contradictory ideas, is a sign of faulty thinking.

Dualism - a common construct --
I want to stress this key aspect of Kantian thinking because it has become very widespread in the West. The ideas of figure and ground (see figure-ground, of different lenses through which to understand the world, and different levels of existence such as the individual at one level and the organisation at another, are examples of this.

Self-organizing systems --
However, Kant went further than providing a philosophical justification of the mechanistic understanding of nature provided by scientists. He held that while it was useful to understand inanimate nature in this way, it was not adequate for an understanding of living organisms. He suggested that organisms could be more usefully understood as self-organising systems, which are very different from mechanisms.

Mechanisms --
A mechanism consists of parts that form a functional unity. The parts derive their function as parts from the functioning of the whole. For example, a clock consists of a number of parts, such as cogs, dials and hands, and these are assembled into a clock, which has the function of recording the passing of time. The parts are only parts of the clock insofar as they are required for the functioning of the whole, the clock. Therefore, a finished notion of the whole is required before the parts can have any function and the parts must be designed and assembled to play their particular role, without which there cannot be the whole clock. Before the clock functions, the parts must be designed and before they can be designed, the notion of the clock must be formulated.

Living organisms --
However, the parts of a living organism are not first designed and then assembled into the unity of the organism. Rather, they arise as the result of interactions within the developing organism. For example, a plant has roots, stems, leaves and flowers that interact with each other to form the plant. The parts emerge, as parts, not by prior design but as a result of internal interactions within the plant itself in a self-generating, self-organising dynamic in a particular environmental context. The parts do not come before the whole but emerge in the interaction of spontaneously generated differences that give rise to the parts within the unity of the whole (Goodwin, 1994; Webster and Goodwin, 1996). The parts, however, have to be necessary for the production of the whole, otherwise they have no relevance as parts. The parts have to serve the whole; it is just that the whole is not designed first but comes into being with the parts. Organisms develop from a simple initial form, such as a fertilised egg, into a mature adult form, all as part of an inner coherence expressed in the dynamic unity of the parts. An organism thus expresses a nature with no purpose other than the unfolding of its own mature form. The organism's development unfolds what was already enfolded in it from the beginning.

Living organisms - purposive unfolding --
Kant described this unfolding as 'purposive' because although an organism is not goal oriented in the sense of moving towards an external result, it is thought of as moving to a mature form of itself. The development to the mature form, and the mature form itself, will have some unique features due to the particular context in which it develops but the organism can only ever unfold the general form already enfolded in it. In talking about development being purposive, Kant introduced his notion of organism developing according to a 'regulative idea'. Since he held that we could not know reality, it followed that we could not say that an organism actually was following a particular idea. In other words, we cannot make the claim of a constitutive idea in relation to the organism. Instead, as observing scientists, we can claim that it is helpful to understand an organism 'as if' it were moving according to a particular purpose, namely, the regulative idea of realising a mature form of itself, that is, its true nature or true self.

Living organisms - as systems with formative causality --
For Kant, the parts of an organism exist because of, and in order to sustain, the whole as an emergent property (Kauffman, 1995). Organisms are self-producing and therefore self-organising wholes, where the whole is maintained by the parts and the whole orders the parts in such a way that it is maintained. In suggesting that we think in terms of systems, Kant was introducing a causality that was teleological and formative rather than the simple, linear, efficient (if-then) causality assumed in the mechanistic way of understanding nature. In systems terms, causality is formative in that it is in the self-organising interaction of the parts that those parts and the whole emerge. It is 'as if' the system, the whole, has a purpose, namely, to move towards a final state that is already given at its origin as a mature form of itself. In other words, nature is unfolding already enfolded forms and causality might be referred to as formative (Stacey et al., 2000) in which the dominant form of causality is the formative process of development from an embryonic to a mature form. It follows that emergence has a particular meaning in Kant's thought. In Kant's systemic thinking, self-organisation means interaction between parts and what emerges in this interaction is the developmental pattern of the whole. Since the system is unfolding what is already enfolded in it this emergent developmental pattern is not unknown or unpredictable. The system does not move towards that which is unknown. What is unknown, however, is reality itself so the system hypothesis cannot be a claim that reality itself moves towards the known.

Nature 'as if' systems, not actually systems --
Note how this understanding of nature as system is quite consistent with the scientific method in that it is the human objective observer who identifies and isolates causality in natural systems and then tests hypotheses (`as if' or regulative ideas) about the purposive movement of those systems. It is not that organisms actually are systems or that they actually are unfolding a particular pattern in movement to a mature form. It is the scientist who finds it useful to think 'as if' they are. It is not that the laws are actually in nature but that the scientist is giving the laws to nature.

Novelty is not explained with formative causality --
A very important point follows from this way of thinking about organisms, namely that it is a way of thinking that cannot explain novelty, that is, how any new form could come into existence. In thinking of an organism as unfolding an already enfolded form, Kant's systems thinking can explain the developmental cycle from birth to death but cannot explain how any new form emerges, that is, how evolution takes place. This is obviously a serious problem if what one wants to understand is creativity, innovation or novelty. The key point is that in Kant's systems thinking, causality is formative rather than transformative.

Systemic explanations are not applicable to humans --
Also, Kant argued that the systemic explanation of how nature functioned could never be applied to humans because humans are autonomous and have a soul. Humans have some freedom to choose and so the deterministic laws of nature cannot be applied to rational human action.

The autonomous individual
For Kant, the human body could be thought of as a system because it is an organism. As such, it is subject to the laws of nature and when human action is driven by the passions of the body then it too is subject to the laws of nature and so not free. However, when acting rationally, humans could not be thought of as parts of a system because then they would exist because of, and in order to maintain, the whole. A part of a system is only a part because it is interacting with other parts to realise themselves in the purposive movement of the emergent whole and the emergence of that whole is the unfolding of what is already enfolded, so excluding any fundamental spontaneity or novelty. If a part is not doing this then it is irrelevant to the system and so not a part acting to produce the whole. However, a part in this sense cannot be free, that is, it cannot follow its own autonomously chosen goals because then it would be acting for itself and not as a part. Furthermore, as parts of a whole that is unfolding an already enfolded final state, neither whole nor parts can display spontaneity or novelty. There can be nothing creative or trans-formative about such a system. This way of thinking, therefore, cannot explain how the new arises.

Autonomous humans, ethical choices, rationalist causality --
It follows that rational human action has to be understood in a different way. Kant held that human individuals are autonomous and so can choose the goals of their actions and they can choose the actions required to realise them using reason. The predominant form of causality here is teleological, namely, that of autonomously chosen ends made possible because of the human capacity for reason. The principal concern then becomes how autonomously chosen goals and actions mesh together in a coherent way that makes it possible for humans to live together. This is a question of ethics and Kant understood ethical choice in terms of universals, namely, those choices that could be followed by all people. We may call this rationalist causality (Stacey et al., 2000).

Contemporary systems thinking is contrary to Kant's notion --
So, Kant developed a systems theory with a theory of formative causality to explain how organisms in nature developed, arguing that this could not be applied to human action, and another kind of explanation for human action, involving rationalist causality. It is particularly important to note these points because when later forms of systems thinking were developed in the middle of the twentieth century, they were directly applied to human action, and individuals came to be thought of as parts in a system called a group, organisation or society. It immediately follows that any such explanation cannot encompass individual human freedom. Nor can a systemic explanation encompass the origins of spontaneity or novelty. To explain these phenomena within systems thinking, we have to rely on the autonomous individual standing outside the system. In other words, change of a transformative kind cannot be explained in systemic terms, that is, in terms of interactions between parts of the system, with one important exception that I will come to in Chapter 8. Any transformative change can then only be explained in terms of the mental functioning of the individual.

Dualistic nature of Kant's systems thinking --
There are two other points to be borne in mind about Kant's systems thinking. It is essentially dualistic, that is, it takes a 'both . . . and' form that eliminates paradox (Griffin, 2002) by locating contradictions in different spaces or time periods.

    So, with regard to knowing there is both the known relating to phenomena and the unknown relating to noumena.
    With regard to the paradox of determinism and freedom there is both the determinism of mechanism and organism in nature and the freedom of rational human action.

Emergence is located in nature and intention in human individuals. Linked to this there is the essentially spatial metaphor underlying all systems thinking. A system is a whole separated by a boundary from other systems, or wholes. In other words, there is an 'inside' and an 'outside'. For example, one thinks of what is happening inside an organisation or outside in the environment. Or one thinks of the mind inside a person and reality outside it.

Key concepts in Kantian thinking

  • Organisms in nature can be thought about 'as if' they are systems.
  • Systems are wholes consisting of parts interacting with each other in a self-generating, self organising way and it is in this interaction that both parts and whole emerge without prior design.
  • However, systems are 'purposive' in that they move according to a developmental pattern from an embryonic to a mature form of themselves.
  • Causality may then be described as formative in that it is the process of interaction between the parts that is forming the developmental path, unfolding that which was already enfolded from the beginning.
  • Humans are autonomous rational individuals who are able to choose their own goals and the actions required to realise them.
  • Causality may then be described as rationalist.
  • Kantian thinking is fundamentally dualistic in that one kind of causality applies to an organism and another to a human individual.

Fracture of philosophy and science (late 1700s) --
We can understand Man as a being within nature who can be studied by science. But the very act of studying Man in this fashion takes him outside of nature because our capacity to understand nature relies on making a distinction between inert, mechanical nature and active, thinking man.

The subject-object distinction and the human-nature cleavage, therefore, are both different ways of expressing the problem of representing the seemingly transcendent aspect of our humanity within a mechanical universe. Unfortunately, very rarely have these two aspects of the same fundamental problem been considered simultaneously. Modern philosophy has concerned itself, rather abstractly, with the problem of the relationship between subject and object. Philosophers have attempted to delineate what can be known of nature construed as 'external' reality, and whether humanity, as the knowing subject, is necessarily distinct from it. Scientists, on the other hand, have concerned themselves with the question of how the empirical knowledge we have of nature can be applied to understanding the specific qualities of Man. The reason for this division of labor lies in the fracture between science and philosophy established towards the end of the eighteenth century. (Malik, 2000, 53)

Today we tend to regard science and philos