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The Sparks that lit the Fire: on the Utility of Triggering Events – Part II

II.        What Are Events?

Assuming that there is such a thing as an ‘event’ for the sake of straightforwardness, the ‘nature’ of events must, ontologically speaking, be described with the help of the conditions of their individuation, consistent with Willard Van Orman Quine’s famous quote: “no entity without identity.”[i] The crucial point here is what has become known as Leibniz’s law, i.e. the identity of indiscernibles, meaning that entities are identical if comparison demonstrates that they have all their properties in common. Properties individuate entities.

Yet, material entities do per definitionem show one constitutive difference, and that is their position in spacetime. The principle of individuation here is ‘form’ – the principle of distinction is ‘quantity’. “Since material entities are multiplied within their species, the substantial form of any such being will also serve as its principle of individuation. For it is by reason of its form that each such individual is undivided in itself and divided from all others.”[ii] This leads to highlighting the first structural element of the identity of events: the spatiotemporal criterion. Events, once they materialize or come into being, do occupy a specific space in or during a specific time (principle of locality). It is essential to point out that space, in the following, also relates to probability space which plays a key role in modeling and forecasting events as causal outcomes. Time, on the other hand, is our primary unit of measuring causality, as we tend to believe that the temporal sequence or the order of events alone establishes a causal connection which is not necessarily true  (‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ – after it, so because of it), except for ordinary causal chains. Time distinguishes causes from effects.

What arguably becomes an event’s preeminent condition for identity is, according to Donald Davidson and in line with the cognitive interest of this essay, the causal criterion. Events are identical if and only if they have in common the exact same causes – and effects. He elaborates: “Are there good reasons for taking events seriously as entities? There are indeed. First, it is hard to imagine a satisfactory theory of action if we cannot talk literally of the same action under different descriptions. […] Explanation […] seems to call for events. […] It is a matter of the first importance that we may, and often do describe actions and events in terms of their causal relations – their causes, their effects or both.”[iii] Asking ‘why’ means asking for causes.

In formal logic, the aforesaid can be translated as: events are identical if their causes and effects are identical, and since causes and effects are themselves events, they are identical if their causes and effects are identical, etc. etc., a textbook example for circular reasoning and infinite regress ([STÖCKER] p. 15 ff.). As it is utterly impossible to compare the properties of all causes and effects of all causes and effects, and terribly inexpedient to even compare more than what is deemed relevant (or what is actually known) for an existing analytical question, one has to take two events’ identities for granted to then deduce similarities in their causes and effects, admittedly turning causality upside down and becoming trapped in the fallacy of ‘converse error’ (see below). That, along with other objections, of course, raises serious doubts if such a criterion for causal individuation can possibly be valid as a criterion for the identity of events. Moreover, issues such as ontological dependence, transitivity and emergence are hardly the taken into account here.

Still, what makes this train of thought noteworthy for our understanding is that it exposes an event’s quality of being a process rather than a singular and instantaneous object. For processes, causality means connectivity, objects are linked with each other (e.g. the words of a phrase), making the underlying causal relation an essentially event-centric and to some extent traceable one.



[i] Cf. http://ejap.louisiana.edu/EJAP/1997.spring/gibson976.html

[ii] Wippel, J. F. (1981) The Metaphysical Thought of Godfrey of Fontaines. Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press. p. 359

[iii] Cf. http://fitelson.org/125/Davidson_individuation_of_events.pdf

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