The Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect. 8th century, Japan

Causality is the relationship between an event (the cause) and a second event (the effect), where the second event is understood as a consequence of the first. The philosophical treatment of causality extends over millennia, stretches back at least to Aristotle.



  • Cause means
    (a) in one sense, that as the result of whose presence something comes into being—e.g., the bronze of a statue and the silver of a cup, and the classes which contain these [i.e., the material cause];
    (b) in another sense, the form or pattern; that is, the essential formula and the classes which contain it—e.g. the ratio 2:1 and number in general is the cause of the octave—and the parts of the formula [i.e., the formal cause].
    (c) The source of the first beginning of change or rest; e.g. the man who plans is a cause, and the father is the cause of the child, and in general that which produces is the cause of that which is produced, and that which changes of that which is changed [i.e., the efficient cause].
    (d) The same as "end"; i.e. the final cause; e.g., as the "end" of walking is health. For why does a man walk? "To be healthy," we say, and by saying this we consider that we have supplied the cause [the final cause].
    (e) All those means towards the end which arise at the instigation of something else, as, e.g., fat-reducing, purging, drugs and instruments are causes of health; for they all have the end as their object, although they differ from each other as being some instruments, others actions [i.e., necessary conditions].
    • Aristotle Metaphysics, Book 5, section 1013a, translated by Hugh Tredennick (online)
  • With ignorance as proximate cause, volitional formations come to be; with volitional formations as proximate cause, consciousness; with consciousness as proximate cause, name-and-form; with name-and-form as proximate cause, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as proximate cause, contact; with contact as proximate cause, feeling; with feeling as proximate cause, craving; with craving as proximate cause, clinging; with clinging as proximate cause, existence; with existence as proximate cause, birth; with birth as proximate cause, suffering; with suffering as proximate cause, faith; with faith as proximate cause, gladness; with gladness as proximate cause, rapture; with rapture as proximate cause, tranquillity; with tranquillity as proximate cause, happiness; with happiness as proximate cause, concentration; with concentration as proximate cause, the knowledge and vision of things as they really are; with the knowledge and vision of things as they really are as proximate cause, revulsion; with revulsion as proximate cause, dispassion; with dispassion as proximate cause, liberation; with liberation as proximate cause, the knowledge of destruction.
  • Causa latet: vis est notissima.
    • The cause is hidden, but the result is known.
    • Ovid, Metamorphoses, IV. 287. in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 91.
  • Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.
    • Happy the man who has been able to learn the causes of things.
    • Virgil, Georgics (c. 29 BC), II, 490. in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 91.

Modern history, until 20th century

  • Causation is defined by some modern philosophers as unconditional uniformity of succession, e.g., existence of fire follows from putting a lighted match to the fuel.
    This idea must be got rid of to understand force. All universally true laws of nature are laws of co-existence, not succession.
    • William Kingdon Clifford, "Energy and Force" (Mar 28, 1873) A previously unpublished lecture by Prof. Clifford before members of the Royal Institution, as described in Nature (May-Oct, 1880) Vol. 22, p. 123. with an introduction by J. F. Moulton.
  • Since therefore ‘tis possible for all objects to become causes or effects to each other, it may be proper to fix some general rules, by which we may know when they really are so.
    (1) The cause and effect must be contiguous in space and time.
    (2) The cause must be prior to the effect.
    (3) There must be a constant union betwixt the cause and effect. ‘Tis chiefly this quality, that constitutes the relation.
    (4) The same cause always produces the same effect, and the same effect never arises but from the same cause. This principle we derive from experience, and is the source of most of our philosophical reasonings. For when by any clear experiment we have discovered the causes or effects of any phaenomenon, we immediately extend our observation to every phenomenon of the same kind, without waiting for that constant repetition, from which the first idea of this relation is deriv’d.
    (5) There is another principle, which hangs upon this, viz. that where several different objects produce the same effect, it must be by means of some quality, which we discover to be common amongst them. For as like effects imply like causes, we must always ascribe the causation to the circumstance, wherein we discover the resemblance.
    (6) The following principle is founded on the same reason. The difference in the effects of two resembling objects must proceed from that particular, in which they differ. For as like causes always produce like effects, when in any instance we find our expectation to be disappointed, we must conclude that this irregularity proceeds from some difference in the causes.
    (7) When any object encreases or diminishes with the encrease or diminution of its cause, ‘tis to be regarded as a compounded effect, deriv’d from the union of the several different effects, which arise from the several different parts of the cause. The absence or presence of one part of the cause is here suppos’d to be always attended with the absence or presence of a proportionable part of the effect. This constant conjunction sufficiently proves, that the one part is the cause of the other. We must, however, beware not to draw such a conclusion from a few experiments. A certain degree of heat gives pleasure; if you diminish that heat, the pleasure diminishes; but it does not follow, that if you augment it beyond a certain degree, the pleasure will likewise augment; for we find that it degenerates into pain.
    (8) The eighth and last rule I shall take notice of is, that an object, which exists for any time in its full perfection without any effect, is not the sole cause of that effect, but requires to be assisted by some other principle, which may forward its influence and operation. For as like effects necessarily follow from like causes, and in a contiguous time and place, their separation for a moment shews, that these causes are not compleat ones.
  • If reason (I mean abstract reason, derived from inquiries a priori) be not alike mute with regard to all questions concerning cause and effect, this sentence at least it will venture to pronounce, That a mental world, or universe of ideas, requires a cause as much, as does a material world, or universe of objects; and, if similar in its arrangement, must require a similar cause. For what is there in this subject, which should occasion a different conclusion or inference? In an abstract view, they are entirely alike; and no difficulty attends the one supposition, which is not common to both of them.
    • David Hume (1779) Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. Philo to Cleanthes, Part IV
  • To all facts there are laws,
    The effect has its cause, and I mount to the cause.
    • Owen Meredith (Lord Lytton), Lucile (1860), Part II, Canto III, Stanza 8. in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 91.
  • No suffering is self-caused.
    Nothing causes itself.
    If another is not self-made,
    How could suffering be caused by another?

    If suffering were caused by each,
    Suffering could be caused by both.
    Not caused by self or by other,
    How could suffering be uncaused?
  • Ask you what provocation I have had?
    The strong antipathy of good to bad.
    • Alexander Pope (1688–1744), Epilogue to Satires, Dialogue 2, line 205. in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 91.
  • Your cause doth strike my heart.
  • Find out the cause of this effect,
    Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
    For this effect defective comes by cause.
    • William Shakespeare, Hamlet (1600-02), Act II, scene 2, line 101. in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 91.
  • God befriend us, as our cause is just!
  • Mine's not an idle cause.

20th century

  • Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the "old one." I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.
    • Albert Einstein (1926) in letter to Max Born (4 December 1926); The Born-Einstein Letters (translated by Irene Born) (Walker and Company, New York, 1971) ISBN 0-8027-0326-7.
    • Einstein himself used variants of this quote at other times. For example, in a 1943 conversation with William Hermanns recorded in Hermanns' book Einstein and the Poet, Einstein said: "As I have said so many times, God doesn't play dice with the world." (p. 58)
  • Principle of causality is fundamental to human thinking, and it has been observed experimentally that this assumption leads to complex hypothesis formation by human subjects attempting to solve comparatively simple problems involving a causal randomly generated events.
  • Probabilistic causality is a branch of philosophy that attempts to explicate causal relationships in terms of probabilistic relationships. This attempt is motivated by several ideas and expectations. First and foremost, probabilistic causality promises a solution to the centuries-old puzzle of causal discovery — that is, how humans discover genuine causal relationships from bare empirical observations, free of any causal preconceptions. ... Second, in contrast to deterministic accounts of causation, probabilistic causality offers substantial cognitive economy. ... Third, probabilistic causality is equipped to deal with the modern (i.e. quantum-theoretical) conception of uncertainty, according to which determinism is merely an epistemic fiction and nondeterminism is the fundamental feature of physical reality.
  • The atoms in the philosophy of Leucippus do not move merely by chance. Leucippus seems to have believed in complete determinism, since he is known to have said: "Naught happens for nothing, but everything from a ground and of necessity." The atomists did not give any reason for the original motion of the atoms, which just shows that they thought of a causal description of the atomic motion; causality can only explain later events by earlier events, but it can never explain the beginning.

21st century

  • What is easier to remember, a collection of facts glued together, or a story, something that offers a series of logical links? Causality is easier to commit to memory. ...What is induction exactly? ...It is very handy, as the general takes much less room in one's memory than a collection of particulars. The effect of such compression is the reduction in the degree of detected randomness.
    • Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2001) Seven: The Problem of Induction | Sir Karl's Promoting Agent | Induction and Memory

See also

Philosophy of science
ConceptsAnalysisA priori and a posterioriCausalityDemarcation problemFactInductive reasoningInquiryNatureObjectivityObservationParadigmProblem of inductionScientific methodScientific revolutionScientific theory
Related topicsAlchemyEpistemologyHistory of scienceLogicMetaphysicsPseudoscienceRelationship between religion and scienceSociology of scientific knowledge
Philosophers of science PlatoAristotleStoicism
AverroesAvicennaRoger BaconWilliam of Ockham
Francis BaconThomas HobbesRené DescartesGalileo GalileiPierre GassendiIsaac NewtonDavid Hume
Immanuel KantFriedrich SchellingWilliam WhewellAuguste ComteJohn Stuart MillHerbert SpencerWilhelm WundtCharles Sanders PeirceHenri PoincaréPierre DuhemRudolf SteinerKarl Pearson
Alfred North WhiteheadBertrand RussellAlbert EinsteinOtto NeurathC. D. BroadMichael PolanyiHans ReichenbachRudolf CarnapKarl PopperW. V. O. QuineThomas KuhnImre LakatosPaul FeyerabendJürgen HabermasIan HackingBas van FraassenLarry LaudanDaniel Dennett
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