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

III.      What Causes Events?

“If we say that the rock caused the window to break, what we mean is that some event involving the rock caused the breaking. If the rock itself is a cause, it is a cause in some derivative sense. But this derivative sense has proved elusive. The rock’s hitting the window is an event in which the rock participates in a certain way, and it is because the rock participates in events in this way that we credit the rock itself with causal efficacy. […] The challenge is therefore to characterize the distinctive manner of participation in the causal order which distinguishes the concrete entities.”[i] Participation is a subjective attribute that, once more, alludes to events occurring in the mode of sequential action ([FISK] p. 235). Nevertheless, participation does not equal causation. The rock will not be held liable before court, it cannot be held ‘responsible’ for the effects it caused unintentionally (there is no conceivable way a rock could do something intentionally, it can only contribute to or participate in action).

Lighting up a fire, for instance, will be necessary to have a barbecue. That alone does not yet lead to the desired effect (a well-grilled piece of meat), but it initiates an agent (fire, heat) which – along with other participating conditions (dry weather etc.) and actions – is expected (probability, certainty, resting upon experience) to do the job. We then constitute the projection of a link between an intrinsic intention to have a barbecue, a box of matches, charcoal, fire and meat, a link which is apt to produce action and cause change. However, without participation, these objects or the mere effects of agents would not add up to an event (i.e. BBQ).

As long as this assumed link works (based on its expected and predicted outcome), scrutinizing the exact sequence would be largely academic for the sake of explanation and identifying the event (resp. actor) that is ultimately responsible for all the others – the dubious first impulse in a series of things that happen. The real analytical challenge, though, will rest in cases and causes whose effects are counterintuitive at best, and an enigma at worst, in short: where causation is one big missing link or obscured with infinite alternative routes. What causes causes then?

From an analytical standpoint (assessing and not interfering with the course of events), tracing back causes means spotting ‘parents’, whereas expecting effects means seeking ‘children’. At the same time, there seems to be a widespread preoccupation with results, or an ex post approach to sense-making in causal relations, which hinders analysis to explain what is not already fully understood. But also from a participatory angle, “[w]hoever expects results as a sequence of his actions, thinks causally. […] All transitive verbs imply causation, they imply doing something, which doing always means causation, producing of effects. All transitive verbs are causal predicates.” ([RIESER] p. 492ff.) And so is most of the analytical lingo.

Therefore, events are generally, and not only linguistically, but also semantically, considered as something that is created or authored, in short caused, which leads to the belief that everything we observe can be assigned a derivation, eventually finding one primary subject that orchestrates one or more objects. Undoubtedly, this is an integral aspect for analysts becoming prone to mono-causal explanations in the form of giving too much weight to triggering events. At the same time, it usually makes distinguishing cause and effect a blurry undertaking.

Moreover, to use the same metaphor, what is often forgotten is that there exist adoptive and step-parents. While, at the first glance, one may believe that those are the biological parents of their children, they in fact did not play the slightest role in giving birth to them. Still, those ‘false’ causes can have a major impact on the development of effects they are – even if not through actual creatorship – bond to, even if only through attribution. Sometimes, and namely in violent political conflict, effects actively select their causes to frame themselves as coherent, continuous and credible, which often is little more than a publicity stunt (e.g. delinquency being named liberation). Even when labels change, causes are rarely dying after producing a specific effect, but rather continue to interact with and be adjusted to the intentions of actors and the sway of outside effects (conditions). “The conception that there are parental relations, that all is a system of acts, is not the result of mere observation of outside events, but [also] a projection from within.” (lc. p. 498) It is a bias.

As we are almost naturally convinced that events unfold due to a quasi-sequential necessity and have an underlying gradual logical structure (‘pattern’) that is scientifically graspable and graphable, asymmetric relations, of which the world is full of, pose a serious epistemological challenge ([DIPERT] p. 354). They are theoretically incoherent and practically inconvenient, and they complicate cause-finding even further since the same – or similar – causes can have different effects and vice versa. Alvin Goldman illustrates the latter as coincidence, that is the conjunction of events or, simply put, connected causality: John, who had just been quarreling with his wife, is answering the phone, saying ‘hello’ loudly. Are saying ‘hello’ and saying ‘hello’ loudly one and the same event? In this case, they are not, because they differ causally. He says ‘hello’ to greet the caller, but he does so loudly as he is in a state of tension which is unrelated to the phone call and to the customs of courtesy ([MUCCIOLO] p. 260). ‘How’ becomes a hint for asking ‘why’ here.

[i] Cf.

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