Toward a Biology Worthy of Life > From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning > Brief excerpt
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

Causes are not laws (1)

While the laws usually considered most fundamental remain (at least ideally) valid regardless of context, we can put them most conveniently on view by establishing carefully contrived closed systems — systems as immune as possible to outside (contextual) interference. That’s because contextual changes tend to obscure the particular law we are after. An apple released from a tree may fall straight toward the center of the earth with more or less constant acceleration — but not if I stretch out my hand and grab it, or a sudden gust of wind arises, or it strikes a bird or insect, or there is a meteoric explosion nearby, and so on. Gravity, of course, will be respected in any case, but sometimes we want to see its role displayed without ambiguity or interference — see it as a matter of demonstrable cause and effect and easy measurement. And so, perhaps, we may contrive to drop the apple within a vacuum chamber, a relatively closed system that eliminates air resistance and insects, and demonstrates the mathematical lawfulness of gravity as directly as possible.

This allows us to talk more convincingly about how one thing “makes” another happen: depressing a button on the outside of the chamber releases a lever, which makes the platform drop suddenly, whereupon the apple, under the effect of the earth’s gravitational field, accelerates downward. There’s a predictable sequence of events here, so that we commonly say one thing or event causes the next — or, at least, does so if the release mechanism isn’t corroded, an earthquake doesn’t upset the apparatus at a crucial moment, air hasn’t leaked into the system, there’s been no sublimation of gases from the materials inside the chamber, and so on.

Clearly, the “causes” in our demonstration are not laws; they never make things happen with the kind of unvarying certainty we associate with physical law. In fact, a “cause” is nothing anyone has ever managed to define with any adequacy. It’s a rather vague, approximate, and anthropomorphic idea, derived from our own experience in “making things happen”. Statistician David Salsburg, author of the engaging book, The Lady Tasting Tea, states bluntly that “There is, in fact, no such thing as cause and effect. It is a popular chimera, a vague notion that will not withstand the batterings of pure reason”.