Logical Criticism of Buddhist Doctrines

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

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6. “Everything causes everything”


One doctrine fundamental to Buddhism is the idea that ‘everything causes everything’, or ‘everything is caused by everything’. This is the idea of universal codependence (or interdependence); it is the idea that nothing exists independently of anything else, that all things depend for their existence on all other things. This is, note well, a more radical thesis than the claim, commonly found in most Western philosophies, that ‘everything has a cause (or a set of causes)’.

On the surface, the Buddhist notion of universal causation seems conceivable, if not profound. However, upon reflection it is found to be logically impossible – i.e. utter nonsense. This is made evident in the following excerpts from past books.


1.    The idea of co-dependence

The Buddhist idea of ‘co-dependence’ might be stated broadly as each thing exists only in relation to others; and furthermore, since each other thing in turn exists only in relation to yet others, each thing exists in relation to all the others. The relation primarily intended here is causality, note. We tend to regard each thing as capable of solitary existence in the universe, and ignore or forget the variegated threads relating it to other things. We ‘do not see the forest for the trees’, and habitually focus on individual events to the detriment of overview or long view.

For example, consider a plant. Without the sunlight, soil and water it depends on, and without previous generations of the same plant and the events that made reproduction possible and the trajectories of each atom constituting and feeding the plant, and without the cosmic upheavals that resulted in the existence of our planet and its soil and water and of the sun and of living matter, and so forth ad infinitum, there would be no plant. It has no independent existence, but stands before us only by virtue of a mass of causes and conditions. And so with these causes and conditions, they in turn are mere details in a universal fabric of being.

The concept of co-dependence is apparently regarded by Buddhists as an inevitable outcome of the concept of causality. But reflection shows, again, that this doctrine is only a particular thesis within the thesis of causality. That is, though co-dependence implies causality, causality does not imply co-dependence. Moreover, it is a vague thesis, which involves some doubtful generalizations. The above-cited typical example of co-dependence suggests three propositions:

  • everything has a cause (or is an effect),
  • everything has an effect (or is a cause);

and perhaps the more radical,

  • everything causes and is caused by everything.

The first two propositions are together what we call ‘the law of causality’. It has to be seen that these propositions do not inevitably follow from the concept of causality. The latter only requires for its formation that some regularity of co-existence between events be found in experience, but does not in itself necessitate that every event in experience be found to have regular co-existence with some other event(s). The concept of causality is valid if it but has particular applications; the law of causality does not automatically follow – it is merely a generalization from some experiences with this property to all existents. There may well be things not found to have regular co-existents, and thence by generalization assumed to have no cause and/or no effect. A universe in which both causality and non-causality occur is quite conceivable. Furthermore, the first proposition does not logically imply the second or vice versa – i.e. we may imagine things with causes but no further effect, and things with effects but no preceding causes.

“Early Buddhists”, Cheng tells us, “believed in the principle of causality to be objectively, necessarily, eternally and universally valid.” Many Western philosophers have concurred, though not all. Today, most physicists believe that, on a quantum level at least, and perhaps at the Big Bang, there are events without apparent cause. I do not know if events without effect are postulated by anyone. In any case, we see that even on the physical level “chance” is admitted as a possibility, if not a certainty. The law of causality can continue to serve us as a working principle, pressing us to seek diligently for causes and effects, but cannot in any case be regarded as an a priori universal truth. Causal logic has to remain open-minded, since in any case these “laws” are mere generalizations – inductive, not deductive, truths.

Furthermore, the law of causality just mentioned is only at best a law of causation. Philosophers who admit of volition[1] cannot consistently uphold such a law as universal to all existents, but only in the ‘mechanistic’ domains of physical and psychological events. With regard to events involving the will, if we admit that a human being (or equivalent spiritual entity, a higher animal or God) can ‘will’ (somehow freely produce) a physiological event (i.e. a physical movement in his body) or a psychological event (i.e. an imagination, a mental projection), or even another soul (at least in the sense of choosing to reproduce), we have to consider this as an exception to such universal law of causation.

Also, if we consider that the Agent of will is always under the influence of some experience or reason, we might formulate an analogical law of causality with reference to this. But influence is not to be confused with causation; it does not determine the will, which remains free, but only strengthens or weakens it, facilitating or easing its operation in a certain direction. Moreover, it is not obvious that will cannot occur ‘nihilistically’, without any influence; it may well be free, not only to resist influences but also to operate in the absence of any motive whatsoever. In the latter case, the law of causality would again be at best a working principle, not a universal fact that volition requires a motive.

Let us now consider the more extreme statement that ‘everything causes and is caused by everything’, which could be construed (incorrectly) as implied by co-dependence. To say this is effectively to say paradoxically (as Nagarjuna would no doubt have enjoyed doing!) that nothing causes or is caused by anything – for causality is a relation found by noticing regularities in contrast to irregularities. If everything were regularly co-existent with everything, we would be unable to distinguish causality in the first place. It follows that such an extreme version of the law of causality is logically untenable. Causality cannot imply that ‘everything causes everything’ or ‘everything is caused by everything’ – and to deny the latter statements does not deny the concept, note well. The concept is not derived from such a law, but independently from observation of regularities in experience; our ability to discern such regularities from the mass of experience implies that there are irregularities too; whence, such an extreme statement cannot be consistently upheld. We must thus admit that things do not have unlimited numbers of causes or effects.

Although ‘everything causes everything’ implies ‘co-dependence’, the latter does not imply the former; so our refutation of the wider statement does not disprove co-dependence, only one possible (extreme) view of it. My criticism of co-dependence would be the following. For a start, the doctrine presented, and the illustrations given in support of it, do not use the term causality with any precision. First, as we have suggested above, causality, is a broad term, covering a variety of very distinct relations:

  • causation or ‘mechanistic’ causality within the material and mental domains, and causation itself has many subspecies;
  • volition, or action by souls on the material or mental or spiritual domains, and will has many degrees of freedom; and
  • influence, which refers to limitations on volition set by material or mental or spiritual entities.

The doctrine of co-dependence glosses over the profound differences between these different senses of the terms ‘cause’ and ‘effect’, using them as if they were uniform in all their applications.

Also to be included as ‘causal relations’ in a broader sense are the negations of these relations. Even if some philosopher doubts one, two or all three of these (positive) relations, he would have to consider them. Concepts of ‘chance’ or ‘spontaneity’ are not simple, and can only be defined by negating those of causality; likewise, the concept of ‘determinism’ requires one of ‘free will’. It is only in contrast to causality concepts, that non-causality can be clearly conceived. Furthermore, co-dependence ignores that some things are not (positively) causally related to each other, even if they may have (positive) causal relations to other things. That something must have some cause or effect, does not imply that it has this or that specific thing as its cause or effect; there are still things to which it is not causally related. If everything had the same positive causal relation to everything, and no negative causal relation, there would be no such thing as causality, nothing standing out to be conceived.

Secondly, if we consider chains (or, in discourse, syllogisms) of causal relations, we find that the cause of a cause is not necessarily itself a cause, or at least not in the same sense or to the same degree. For instance, with reference to causation, we can formally prove that if A is a complete cause of B and B is a complete cause of C, then A is a complete cause of C. But if A is a complete cause of B and B is a partial cause of C, it does not follow that A is at all a cause of C. Similarly, when we mix the types of causality (e.g. causation and volition in series), we find that causality is not readily transmitted, in the same way or at all. It is therefore logically incorrect to infer transmission of causality from the mere fact of succession of causal relations as the theory of co-dependence does.

Thirdly, those who uphold co-dependence tend to treat both directions of causal relation as equivalent. Thus, when they say ‘everything is causally related to everything’, they seem to suggest that being a cause and being an effect is more or less the same. But something can only be regarded as a cause of things occurring after it in time or below it in conceptual hierarchy, and as an effect of things occurring before it or above it. Upstream and downstream are not equivalent. Thus, ‘interdependence’ cannot be taken too literally, using ‘causal relation’ in a too vague sense, without attention to the distinction between causal and effectual relationship.

Fourthly, the doctrine of co-dependence suggests or calls for some sort of law(s) of causality, and as already discussed higher up, no universal or restricted law of causality is logically necessitated by the concept of causality, although such a law may be considered a hypothetical principle to be validated inductively. The concept of causality only requires that some causality occur, without prejudicing how much. So, though co-dependence implies causality, causality does not imply co-dependence.

Fifthly, the concept of ‘co-dependence’ is upheld in contrast and opposition to a concept of ‘self-subsistence’. Something self-subsistent would exist ‘by itself’, without need of origination or support or destructibility, without ‘causal conditions’. Buddhism stresses that (apart perhaps from ultimate reality) nothing in the manifold has this property, which Buddhism claims ordinary consciousness upholds. In truth, the accusation that people commonly believe in the self-subsistence of entities is false – this is rather a construct of earlier Indian philosophy.

People generally believe that most things have origins (which bring them into existence), and that all things once generated have static relations to other existents (an infinity of relations, to all other things, if we count both positive and negative relations as ‘relations’), and that things usually depend for their continued existence on the presence or absence of other things (i.e. if some of the latter come or go, the former may go too). What is doubtful however, in my view, is the vague, implicit suggestion of the co-dependence doctrine, that while a thing is present, i.e. during the time of its actual existence, it has a somehow only relative existence, i.e. were it not for the other things present in that same moment, it could not stand.

This is not essentially a doctrine of relativity to consciousness or Subject (though Yogachara Buddhism might say so), note well, but an existential incapacity to stand alone. This is the aspect of co-dependence that the Western mind, or ordinary consciousness, would reject. In our world[2], once a thing is, and so long as it is, irrespective of the causes of its coming to be or the eventual causes of its ceasing to be, or of other things co-existing with it in time and its relationships to those things, or of its being an object of consciousness, it simply exists. It is a done thing, unchangeable historical fact, which nothing later in time can affect. It cannot be said to ‘depend’ on anything in the sense implied by Buddhists, because nothing could possibly be perceived or conceived as reversing or annulling this fact.

What Buddhism seems to be denying here is that ‘facts are facts’, whatever their surrounding circumstances, and whether or not they are cognized, however correctly or imperfectly. It is a denial that appearances, whatever their content and whether they be real or illusory, have occurred. We cannot accept such deviation from the Law of Identity.

Such considerations lead me to the conclusion that ‘co-dependence’ is not easy to formulate and establish, if at all. Nevertheless, I regard it as a useful ‘way of looking at things’, a valuable rough and ready heuristic principle. Also, to be fair, I remain open to the possibility that, at some deep level of meditative insight I have not reached, it acquires more meaning and validity.


2.    Conclusions of first phase of studies

It must be understood that this research has not been idle reshuffling of information and symbols. It had both practical and theoretical purposes in mind.

The practical questions relate to everyday reasoning about causes and effects. One of the principal questions we posed, you will recall, was whether the cause of the cause of something is itself a cause of that thing or not, and if it is, to whether it is so to the same degree or a lesser degree. This issue of causal (or effectual) chains is what the investigation of causal syllogism is all about. What our dispassionate research has shown is that it is absurd to expect ordinary reasoning, unaided by such patient formal reflections, to arrive at accurate results. The answer to the question about chains is resounding and crucial: the cause of a cause is not necessarily itself a cause, and if it is a cause it need not be one to the same degree. Once the scientific impact of this is understood, the importance of such research becomes evident.

But this syllogistic issue has not been the only one dealt with. We have in the process engaged in many other investigations of practical value. The definitions of the determinations causation by means of matrixes can help both laypeople and scientists to classify particular causative relations, simply by observing conjunctions of presences and absences of various items. Generalizations may occur thereafter, but they should always be checked by further empirical observation (at least, a readiness to notice; eventually, active experiment) and adjusted as new data appears (or is uncovered).

Another interesting finding has been the clarification of the relationships between positive and negative, absolute and relative causative propositions: for instance, that we may affirm partial or contingent causation, while denying it of a particular complement. One very important principle – that we have assumed in this volume, but not proved, because the proof is only possible in the later phase of research – is that (absolute) “lone determinations” are logically impossible. This means that we may in practice consider that if there is causation at all, it must be in one or the other of the four “joint” determinations.

Another finding worth highlighting is that non-causation is denial of the four genera (or four species) of causation, and before these can be definitely denied we have to go through a long process of empirical verification, observing presences and absences of items or their negations in all logically possible conjunctions. It is thus in practice as difficult to prove non-causation as to prove causation! Indeed, to be concluded the former requires a lot more careful analysis of data than the latter. Of course, in practice (as with all induction) we assume causation absent, except where it is proved present. But if we want to check the matter out closely, a more sustained effort is required.

With regard to the theoretical significance of our findings, now. By theoretical, here, I mean: relevant to philosophical discussions and debates about causality. Obviously, so far we have only treated causation, and said nothing about volition and allied cause-effect relations, so we cannot talk about causality in its broadest sense.

What our perspective makes clear is that the existence of “causation” is indubitable, once we apprehend it as a set of experiential yes or no answers to simple questions, leaving aside references to some underlying “force” or “connection” (which might be discussed as a later explanatory hypothesis). If we look upon causation in a positivistic manner, and avoid metaphysical discussions that tend to mystify, it is a simple matter. Causation is an abstraction, in response to phenomenologically evident data. It is a summary of data.

It is not purely empirical, in the sense of a concept only summarizing presences of phenomena. It involves a rational element, in that it also summarizes absences of phenomena. Affirmation may only be acknowledgment of the empirically apparent. But negation, as I have stressed in my work Phenomenology[3], is a partly rational act (a question is asked: is the thing I remember or imagine now present to my senses?), as well as a partly empirical act (the answer is no: I see or hear or otherwise sense nothing equivalent to that image!). Absence does not exist independently like presence, but signifies an empirically disappointed mental expectation.

Reading debates between philosophers (for example, David Hume’s discussions), one might get the impression that non-causation is an obvious concept, while causation needs to be defined and justified. But, as we have seen here, non-causation can only be understood and proven with reference to causation. Before we can project a world without causation, we have to first understand what we mean by causation, its different determinations, their interactions, and so forth. But the moment we do that, the existence of causation is already obvious. However, this does not mean that non-causation does not exist. Quite the contrary. Since, as we have seen, some formal processes like syllogism with premises of causation are inconclusive, we may say that the existence of causation implies that of non-causation! This finding has two aspects:

  1. The more immediate aspect is inferred from the fact that the cause of a cause of something is not necessarily itself a cause of it: taking any two things at random, they may or not be causatively related. This implication is valuable to contradict the Buddhist notion that “everything is caused by everything”. But the possibility of independence from some things does not exclude dependence on other things. Each of the two things taken at random may well have other causes and effects than each other.
  2. A more radical aspect is the issue of spontaneity, or no causation by anything at all. We can only touch upon this issue here, since we have only dealt with causation so far. But what our formal study of causation has made clear is that we cannot say offhand whether or not spontaneity in this sense is possible. There is no “law of causation” that spontaneity is impossible, i.e. that “everything has a cause”, as far as I can see. Nothing we have come across so far implies such a universal law; it can only be affirmed by generalization. Spontaneity (chance, the haphazard) remains conceivable.

I think the point is made: that formal research such as the present one has both practical and theoretical value. Let us now explain why the research undertaken so far is insufficient.


3.    Conclusions of second phase of studies

The universal causation doctrine predicts that every existent has at least some causative relation(s) to some other existents. This is usually understood in a moderate sense as only some other things cause each thing, but Buddhism understands it more extremely as all other things cause each thing. This ‘universal universal causation’ is referred to as the interdependence (or codependence) of all things.

We normally suppose that only the past and present can cause the present or future; and indeed, this principle should primarily be read that way. But some might go further and claim that time is transcended by causation, and that literally everything causes everything; I am not sure Buddhism goes to that extreme. Note also that, in truth, Buddhism intends its interdependence principle restrictively, as applicable only to dharmas, i.e. the transient phenomena constituting the world of appearances; in the higher or deeper realm of the quiescent and undifferentiated “original ground” there is no causation.

Be it said in passing, this version of “karmic law” must be distinguished from the narrower statement, which most of us agree with, that actions have consequences. The latter does not imply the former! More deeply, I think what the Buddhists really meant by their law of karma was that each human (or other living) being is somewhat locked within recurring behavior patterns, very difficult (or impossible) to get out of. This is another issue, concerning not causation but volition.

That is the sense of “the wheel”: our cultural and personal habits as well as our physical limitations, keep influencing our behavior and are reinforced by repetition. Much meditation and long-term corrective action are required to change them; they cannot be overcome by immediate measures, by a sheer act of will. We are thus burdened by a “baggage” of karma, which we carry out through our lives with usually little change; it may be lightened with sustained effort, but is more likely to be made heavier as time passes.

If we logically examine the claim that “everything causes everything”, we see that if everything is causatively connected to everything else, then nothing is without such connection to any other thing, let alone without causative connection to anything whatsoever. That is, this doctrine is effectively a denial that relative as well as absolute non-causation ever occurs, which no one in Western culture would admit. To evaluate it objectively, let us look back on the findings in the present volume.

First, in defense of the idea of interdependence, it should be recalled that when we discussed the significance of the “last modus” in any grand matrix (modus #16 for two items, or #256 for three, etc.), which declares any combination of the items concerned or their negations as possible (code 1 in every cell of the modus), we saw that there was an uncertainty as to whether this indicated causation (or more broadly, connection) or its absence. If the last modus could be shown on formal grounds to indicate causation in all cases, then all contingents in the universe would have to be considered as causatively related to all others (i.e. any two contingents taken at random could be affirmed as causatively related, specifically in the way of the partial contingent determination, pq).

However, since such formal demonstration is lacking, and the idea is anyway disagreeable to common sense (at least that of non-Buddhists), we estimated that the science of Logic had to keep an open mind and grant the possibility of the alternative interpretation, namely that two items may or may not be causatively related to each other (i.e. relative non-causation is possible), and moreover that spontaneity (i.e. absolute non-causation) is at least conceivable in some cases. However, in this context, the Buddhist thesis of interdependence, remains a legitimate formal postulate. But note well, only a possible alternative hypothesis; and not a very probable one for most observers (those of us who believe in freewill, for example; as well as physicists who reify the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle).

An important formal criticism we can level against the notion of interdependence is to ask what manner or degree of causation is meant by it. The term ‘causes’ in ‘everything causes everything’ is used very vaguely. Is only causation intended, to the exclusion of volition? And if causation is intended, surely this is meant broadly to include prevention? And are the different determinations of causation admitted, i.e. strong (complete and/or necessary) as well as weak (partial and/or contingent)? The definition of causation traditionally attributed to the Buddha is:


“When this is, that is; this arising, that arises. When this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceases.”


This definition would suggest that only complete necessary causation is intended. But other discussions within Buddhism suggest that this definition is only intended as a paradigm, as the most obvious case, and partial and contingent causation is also in practice admitted, as use of the plural in the expression “causes and conditions” testifies. We may regard prevention as formally subsumed by all these concepts, by negation of an item. Some discourses also seem to accept volition, but this need not concern us here. Focusing, then, on causation in a broad sense, we may make the following criticism.

If everything is causatively related to everything else, then the only conceivable kind of causation would be weak (both partial and contingent). For strong causation (complete and/or necessary) surely implies a certain exclusiveness of relationship between the items. If all items are involved to some degree in the existence of a given item, then none of those causes can be claimed to predominate. So finally, it seems to me, this Buddhist doctrine of multilateral causation requires all bilateral causative relations to be weak, and ultimately abandons strong determinations (including mixtures), and all the more so the strongest determination (which it originally rightly claimed as the definition of causation).

One way to show that the interdependence theory implies specifically a ‘universal weak link’ is as follows. If we claim interdependence to apply indiscriminately to all ‘things’, i.e. not only to experiential things (dharmas), but also to abstract things, we fall into formal difficulties as soon as we suppose some causative relations to be strong. For then such abstract relations (i.e. causations) also count as ‘things’, and are therefore subject to interdependence. We might thus ask how a cause can be complete or necessary when that relationship is itself dependent on some yet other cause: we are forced to contradict our premise and conclude that the cause is not as complete or necessary as it seemed.

I suppose the proposed state of affairs (universal interdependence) is formally conceivable, although I do not see on what grounds we could possibly allow such rejection in one fell swoop of a large number of moduses (i.e. all alternative moduses concerning the strong determinations). Unless a reasonable formal or empirical ground is provided, there is no justification in such a radical measure: it would constitute prejudice. The Buddhist claim is of course based on a meditative experience; but since this is esoteric, not readily available to all observers at will, we must remain critical and view it as speculative. We cannot categorically eliminate it on firm rational grounds, but we cannot just take it on faith.

It should be realized that causation is a conceptual object, not a percept. Before we can discern a causative relation between two or more percepts (and all the more so between concepts) we have to distinguish the percepts from each other (and conceptualize them by comparison and contrast of many percepts, in the case of concepts). Also, causation refers to negation, which is a product of rational as well as empirical factors. Thus, if we approach the issue of causation with respect to the phenomenological order of things, we must recognize that it is a rather high-level abstract, although of basic importance in the organization of knowledge. It is not something we just directly see or otherwise sense. For this reason, we may remain skeptical that there is some flash of insight that would instantly reveal the causal relations of all things in the universe.

Thus, while the interdependence doctrine apparently does not give rise to formal inconsistency, we have good reason to doubt it with reference to normal human knowledge development. Causation is ordinarily known only gradually, through painstaking observation and analysis of particular data, always subject to review and revision as new data makes its appearance and possible contradictions are encountered. Our minds are not omniscient or rigidly deductive, but cumulative and flexibly inductive: we proceed by trial and error, constantly adjusting our positions to match up with new input and logical insight. Therefore, we cannot rely on sweeping statements, like that about interdependence, without being very careful.

Of course, some philosophers would argue back that causation as such is a man-made illusion, since pure experience only reveals undifferentiated presence. Differentiation into ‘distinct’ percepts, and finding that some sought things are ‘absent’, and conceptualization on the basis of ‘similarities and differences’, are all acts of reason. Indeed, if all perceived appearances are regarded as mere wave motions in a single, otherwise uniform substrate of existence (the ‘original ground’ of Buddhists or the Unified Field of physicists), then the boundaries we think we perceive or conceive for individuated things are in fact mere fictions, and all things (including even our fantasies about causation) are ultimately One in a very real sense.

So let us keep an open mind either way, and cheerfully move on. I just want to add one more small set of reflections, which the Buddhist idea of interdependence generated in me. This idea is often justified with reference to causal chains[4]. I tried therefore to imagine the world as a large body of water, like Lake Geneva say. According to this theory, supposedly, a disturbance anywhere in the lake eventually ripples through the whole lake, to an ever-diminishing degree but never dampening to zero. I then translated this image into the language of causal chains, for purposes of formal evaluation.

Looking at the results of macroanalysis, one would immediately answer that the Buddhist expectation is wrong. As we have seen, a cause of a cause of something is not necessarily itself a cause of that thing; and even if it is a cause, it may be so to a lesser degree. Many first figure syllogisms yield no causative conclusion, although their premises are compatible. Some do yield a conclusion, but that conclusion is often weaker in determination than the premises. Thus, we have formal reasons to doubt the idea of interdependence, if it is taken to imply that ‘a cause of cause of something is itself in turn a cause of that thing’.

All the same, I thought, thinking of the movement of disturbances in the lake, there is some truth in the contention. I then thought that maybe we should conceive of ‘orders of causation’ – and postulate that even “if A causes B and B causes C, but nevertheless A does not syllogistically cause C” is true in a given case in terms of first-order causation, it can still be said that A causes C in second-order causation. And we could perhaps continue, and declare that if the latter (meaning, causes a cause of) is not applicable in a given case, we could appeal to a third order of causation, etc. We might thus, in an attempt to give credence to all theories, explain the Buddhist notion as involving a diluted sense of ‘causation’.

This idea seemed plausible for a while, until I got into microanalysis. In the latter approach, conclusions are given in terms of alternative moduses. There is no room for a fanciful, more abstract, additional order of causation: the result would be identical, still the same number (one or more) of legitimate alternative moduses. No useful purpose would be served in inventing new (narrower or broader) sets of alternative moduses, and giving such groups new names. We could only at best regard all moduses in a grand matrix (other than the first, composed of all zeros) as indicative of some ‘causation’ (in a maximal sense), and so say that any alternative modus found at the conclusion of a syllogistic intersection is ‘residual causation’.

But having reached this bottom line, we see how trite the suggestion is.


4.    Conclusions of third phase of studies

We should also here mention the cognitive role of alleged laws of causation. We have already briefly discussed laws relating to space and time.

In times past, it seems that some degree of sameness between cause and effect was regarded as an important law of causation. Upon reflection, the proponents of this criterion for causation probably had in mind that offspring have common features with their parents. But apparently, some people took this idea further and supposed that the substance (and eventually some other characteristics) of cause and effect must be the same. But though this criterion may be applicable to biology or other specific domains (e.g. the law of conservation of matter and energy in physics could be so construed), it is not generally regarded as universal. Formally, I see no basis for it.[5]

The law of causation most often appealed to (at least in Western thought) is that ‘everything has a cause’. But though it is evidently true of most things that they have causes, and the belief in this law often motivates us to look for or postulate causes (i.e. even if none is apparent, we may assume one to exist), we have not in our study found any formal grounds to affirm such a law as universal. Admitting the fact of causation does not logically force us to admit its universality. This does not prove that it is not empirically universal; and it does not prevent us from formulating such universality as an adductive hypothesis. In any case, today, as evidenced by quantum physics and big-bang cosmogony, it seems generally assumed by scientists that this law is indeed not universal (which does not mean it is not very widely applicable).

I wonder anyway if it was ever really regarded as universal. I would say that in the 19th Century, this law was assumed universal for physical phenomena – but not necessarily for mental phenomena; human volition was generally taken to be an exception to the rule, i.e. freedom of the will was acknowledged by most people. Paradoxically, in the iconoclastic 20th Century, while the said law of causation was denied universality for material things, every effort was made to affirm it as regards human beings and thus forcefully deny freedom of the will[6]. Intellectual fashions change, evidently. But as far as I am concerned, while I admit the possibility that this law may not-be universally true of matter, I have no doubt that it is inapplicable to the human will[7].

Another alleged law of causation that should be mentioned here (because of the current interest in it, in some circles) is the Buddhist notion that ‘every thing is caused by everything’. As I have shown in the present volume, this idea of universal ‘interdependence’ is logically untenable. It is formally nonsensical. Indeed, if you just think for a moment, you will realize (without need for complex formal analysis) that to affirm interdependence is to deny causation, or at least its knowability. Every concept relies on our ability to distinguish the presence and absence of the thing conceived; if it is everywhere the same, it cannot be discerned. I think the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna can be said to have realized that; and this would explain why he ultimately opted for a no-causation thesis. However, that does not mean that causation can logically be denied: as already explained earlier, it cannot.

Well, then. Are there any ‘laws of causation’? Of course there are, a great many! Every finding concerning the formal logic of causation in this volume is a law of causation, a proven law. For instance, the fact that not all positive causative syllogisms yield a positive conclusion of some sort is an important law of causation, teaching us that a cause of a cause of something is not necessarily itself a cause of that thing.


Drawn from Buddhist Illogic (2002), chapter 8 (part) and The Logic of Causation (2003), chapter 10.1 (part) and 16.3.



[1]              And at least some Buddhists seem to. For instance, the statement in the Dhammapada (v.165) that “by oneself the evil is done, and it is oneself who suffers: by oneself evil is not done, and by one’s Self one becomes pure. The pure and the impure come from oneself: no man can purify another” – this statement seems to imply existence of a self with responsibility for its actions.

[2]              We can, incidentally, imagine a world where only one thing exists, without anything before it, simultaneous to it or after it.

[3]              This final chapter of Phase One was written in 2003, after publication of Phenomenology.

[4]              See for instance Thich Naht Hanh, The Heart of Understanding.

[5]              If we want to go more deeply in the history of ‘laws of causation’, we would have to mention, among others, the Hindu/Buddhist law of karma, according to which one’s good and bad deeds sooner or later have desirable or undesirable consequences, respectively, on oneself. It is the popular idea that ‘what goes around must come around’. Though I would agree this is sometimes, frequently or even usually empirically true, we must admit that it does not always seem confirmed by observation – so it is at best a hopeful generalization (to a life after this one) intended to have positive moral influence. In any case, I see no formal basis for it. The same can be said concerning reward or punishment by God – though it might well be true, it is not something that can readily be proved by observation or by formal means; an act of faith is required to believe in it (I do, on that basis). In any case, the latter can hardly be called a ‘law of causation’, since the free will of God is thought to be involved in bringing about the effect.

[6]              Actually, both these changes were (I suggest) consciously or subconsciously motivated by the same evil desire to incapacitate mankind. Their proponents effectively told people: “you cannot control matter (since it is ultimately not subject to law) and you cannot control yourself (since you have no freewill) – so give up trying”. People who believed this nonsense (including its advocates) were influenced by it to become weaker human beings. Virtue was derided and vice was promoted. We see the shameful results of this policy all around us today.

[7]              I argue this issue elsewhere, in my Volition and Allied Causal Concepts. It should be mentioned that an analogue to the law of causation is often postulated, consciously or not, for the mind. We tend to think that every act of volition has a cause, in the sense of being influenced or motivated, by something or other. Though largely true, this assumption taken literally would exclude purely whimsical volitions; thus, I tend to doubt it, for reasons explained in my said book. In any case, do not confuse this ‘law of influence’ with the ‘law of causation’ here discussed. These are very distinct forms of causality, which cannot be lumped together.

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