Cause and Effect
By R. D. Flavin


     Consequences are often predictable.  Placing one's hand over a fire is certainly guaranteed to cause burning, though some with nerve damage (say, those with leprosy), may not feel the pain, yet the burning occurs nonetheless.  In all areas of nature and human endeavors there are examples of cause and effect.  One action almost always produces a reaction of some sort.  The old ABC television show, Baretta (starring Robert Blake) featured a theme song (“Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow” sung by Sammy Davis Jr. and written by Grusin and Ames) which advised “don't do the crime if you can't do the time!'"  Okay, it's an easy example of cause and effect, but one which continues to be pertinent in many aspects of life.

     We've tried to understand and explain causality since at least the 4th century BCE (Aristotle's Metaphysics; VI 3) and attempts continued into the so-called Middle Ages with the likes of Thomas Aquinas, and persisted into the “Renaissance” with efforts by Niccolò Machiavelli and Francis Bacon.  With the work of the Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), and specifically his A Treatise of Human Nature (see: Hume, David. 2007. A Treatise of Human Nature: A Critical Edition. Edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Clarendon Press; Section XII.: “Of the Probability of Causes”), he argued rather successfully that much of our associations, reasoning, and “understandings” are based on mental processes (i.e., potentially illusory) and was an influential proponent of the non-determinist concept of“free will.”  Yet, privately and in a rather offhandly manner, wrote "I never asserted so absurd a proposition as that something could arise without a cause (Hume, David. 1983. The Letters of David Hume. Edited by J. Y. T. Greig. 2 vols. See: 1: 187. New York: Garland). Science moves methodically forward and with a little help from engineering and physics, by the  early 19th century, “proof” began to emerge which assisted a better explanation of cause and effect.

Sadi Carnot's pison-and-cylinder diagram from 1824.

     The French military engineer, Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot (1796–1832), released a short monograph in 1824, Réflexions sur la puissance motrice du feu et sur les machines propres à développer cette puissance (“Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire and on Machines Fitted to Develop that Power,” published in French; Paris: Bachelier) which proposed a hypothetical “engine” and helped to establish what was to later to become known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  Carnot suggested that motive power (water, wind, etc.) was due to the shifting of heat from a hot to a cold body.  Though ultimately Carnot's caloric theory of heat was proven wrong, his insights eventually allowed the German mathematician and physicist, Rudolf Julius Emanuel Clausius (1822–888), to introduce the concept of 'entropy' (Clausius, R. 1867. The Mechanical Theory of Heat – with its Applications to the Steam Engine and to Physical Properties of Bodies. London: John van Voorst).

     Entropy (from the Greek τροπή, that is, a 'transformation' or ‘turning’ of energy), was initially understood to explain the loss of heat (or 'energy') when 'work' or a process occurs.  Clausius corrected Sir Isaac Newton's view that energy (i.e., heat and light) were forms of unchangeable and indestructible matter (which he believed possessed 'mass'), and formulated a theory by which dissipative energy during a change of state could be expressed and predicted.  Later, a statistical mechanics definition emerged with a mathematical definition of irreversibility in the forms of trajectories and integrability.  Though others contributed to a better approach to entropy, it was formally expressed by the Austrian physicist, Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger (1887-1961), best known for his work in quantum theory and his famous paradoxical “Schrödinger's Cat” thought experiment expressed in his article, “The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics (Schrödinger, Erwin. 1935. "Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik." Die Naturwissenschaften (“The Science of Nature”). 23,49: 823-828).  The poor kitty, at once alive, dead, and both at a certain speculative point, continues to enjoy debate and application. Of course, the thought experiments of Carnot and Schrödinger being used to demonstrate cause and effect is delightfully ironic. We advance and change in mysterious (though sometimes explainable) ways.

Image based on“Schrödinger's Cat” by Dhatfield/Wikipedia.

      Sometimes we choose to venture into the realm of the theoretical, while at other points of our shared existence, we are bound by action and reaction, cause and effect, and decisions and their consequences.  Of late, I've made several improper choices in personal, legal, and professional areas which I must endure the results.  In some respects, at the very least philosophically, if not physically demonstrable, such “cause and effect” is akin to the Indian principle of causality known as Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म), or in modern terms, “what goes around, comes around,” “we reap what we sow,” and the vulgar “shit happens.”  Pertinent examples are everywhere...

     Our polluting of the environment is irreparable, yet we continue to use the oceans as our toilets and deforestation, fracking, and fossil fuel usage is regarded as an economic necessity.  Our financial policies have ruined the lives of many and our fixation on the supernatural (e.g., religious fundamentalism) has kept us at war with one another since ...the first “believer” swore to obey the “laws” of an imaginary supra or extraterrestrial being or beings a long, long time ago.  It's cause and effect and the planet and its inhabitants are suffering the consequences.

     I know, problems are multitudinous and it's arguably wrong to focus on one while not addressing the many.  Yet, limited by attention spans and space, I would cite the ongoing struggle in the Ukraine, with the Russian parliament authorizing the use of force to “protect” the Crimea region of Ukraine.  Yeah, Russia is preparing to invade the Ukraine and Ukrainians are calling upon its many past treaties and agreements with the US, UK, France, China, NATO, the UN, and even with Russia (the 2009 agreement signed by Pres. Obama and the third President of Russia, Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev [now, the Russian “Prime Minister”]) to help protect its borders from hostility, as Ukraine bravely became a non-nuclear country in 1994-1996 and gave up its weapons (the third largest in the world, at the time).  It's not good to go back on your word....

     As Winter continues to cause and have an effect on our lives from sea to polluted and weird shining sea, it appears another Cold War is beginning with Russia strong-arming the Ukraine for its own political, cultural, and economic reasons.  In Nature, Springtime brings a thaw and we warm to another season of growth, yet I suspect things will continue to remain chilly, if not not downright 'cold' between the US and Russia.  We choose our causes and should anticipate the effects.  I hope Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster's lyrics, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” was just clever hyperbole and we fulfill our promises.  Success and failure may be statistically expressed in mathematical formulas, but honor is more than just ink on paper - it's what makes life worth living.

Hoping POE* prevails,

* Peace On Earth

Return to