So I shall restrict Nagarjuna's dependent arising of phenomena to the physical realm*. The source of my understanding is "Part Two, Chapter one - Examination of Conditions" of the book the fundamental wisdom of the middle way - Jay L Garfield which reads more as a metaphysical treatise on initial value problems.

Here's one of my takeaways of this*: "Cause preceding effect is more to with how we humans frame things."

To make this claim I'll assume determinism (for ease of explanation). Imagine an isolated room with some pebbles suspended in the air which are about to fall on a calculator. Now, I know the position and momentum of every molecule in the room. I run a simulation and I see the first pebble drops on 2, the second pebble drops on +, the third pebble drops on 3, the fourth pebble drops on =. Now at the moment the fourth pebble drops on = I suspend my physics calculations and predict that the outcome will be 5. (Note this was done without calculating the time evolution of the circuitry of the calculator).

How did I do this? I took advantage that the physical system performs a computation whose output in this situation is 5. Warmup is over.

Now, imagine I have a system which does the following computation: it "pretends" it has degrees of freedom. It to some extent attempts to second guess the time evolution of the environment around it. Then it makes a computation to act in a way relevant to it's goals and performs accordingly. Let's call this physical system a human being. Let's say the human is in a dark room and turns on the light.

Now, the human would conclude the following: "if I perform the action: flicking the switch the outcome: a well lit room would not have taken place. Hence, cause must precede effect." But from the perspective of physics, this isn't really what's happening (I'd argue). There really aren't any degrees of freedom if you start with a particular initial condition. The physical system would have always done the computation it would have performed. There is no if in "if I perform the action: flicking the switch the outcome: a well lit room would not have taken place." This "if" merely comes out of because we are taking advantage of the physical system doing a particular computation. It's not that causation does not make sense if there is no human being. It's only the human who privileged his actions and concluded "cause preceded effect." If nothing is privileged one would conclude simultaneity of cause and effect.

Suppose that you ask, “Why are the lights on?” I might reply as follows: (1) “Because I flicked the switch.” I have appealed to an efficient condition. Or, (2) “Because the wires are in good working order, the bulbs haven’t burned out, and the electricity is flowing.” These are supporting conditions. Or, (3) “The light is the emission of photons each of which is emitted in response to the bombardment of an atom by an electron, and so forth.” I have appealed to a chain of immediate conditions. Or, (4) “So that we can see.” This is the dominant condition. Any of these would be a perfectly good answer to the “Why?” question. But note that none of them makes reference to any causal powers or necessitation.


What I fail to understand is why isn't this more mainstream (Hence I suspect, there must be a flaw in my argument)? I can see immediate lines of attacks and implications for ethics, physics, etc. Perhaps, there are some counters or critiques I am unaware of?

  • Don't (1) through (4) correspond to Aristotle's four types of causality, albeit by other names? Note also that Kant discusses simultaneous cause-effect relations in his (very) convoluted discussion of causality in the Transcendental Analytic. Aug 15, 2023 at 4:02
  • @KristianBerry yes but he did not conclude: simultaneity of cause and effect (as far as I know) Aug 15, 2023 at 4:05
  • He uses an example of placing a weight on a cushion, with the depression in the cushion being simultaneous with the placement of the weight. In modern terms, we might say that Kant described causation as monotonic, i.e. either level or increasing, rather than absolutely always increasing, in time. Aug 15, 2023 at 4:07
  • @KristianBerry how is causation "always increasing, in time"? Either way regardless who thought of this first. To me the more interesting question is: are there are some counters or critiques I am unaware of? Is there may be a flaw in my argument. I don't get why isn't this more mainstream? Aug 15, 2023 at 4:12
  • I don't know that it isn't more mainstream, exactly. The SEP has numerous articles about different theories of causation, including backwards, manipulability-based, etc. versions. I don't know if most versions require causes to be prior to effects in the sequence of duration rather than dynamical ordering; for example, the popular counterfactual-conditional theory seems to easily allow for simultaneity when it connects two propositions in the ambient logic. Aug 15, 2023 at 4:17

2 Answers 2


I'd say it is mainstream, and I'd relate your points to Hume's Problem of Induction. See discussion of how the 'laws of physics' amount principally to conservation laws, which is to say continuous symmetries under transformation: Is the idea of a causal chain physical (or even scientific)? Or this recent discussion framing some of the philosophical terms: Everything must have a cause? My interpretation of Kant and his Categorical Imperative, is that he wants find objectivity in transcendental subjectivity, and some people buy that (discussed here Is the Categorical Imperative Simply Bad Math? :)).

A good deal of the confusion about causation, gets stirred up by issues of free-will and volition, where we experience ourselves as making choices that cause events, and then use the same word cause to talk about events of inanimate objects analysed by physics. It's loose language, and in physics causation gets used conversationally, but under the hood it's measurements, and distinguishing between models. Cause like proof, does not really belong as a word in the realm of induction.

You mention Nagarjuna, but it seems like you aren't really framing the question or your thinking in relation to his work. I see Yogacara philosophy as pointing at subjectivity as metaphysically fundamental, which results in it a bit misleadingly being dubbed the 'mind only' school. I interpret it as more like peer-to-peer reality, like as framed by the metaphor of Indra's Net. A modern term is intersubjectivity. And I like David Krakauer's term 'teleonomic matter' which he uses to describe what the domain of Complex Systems Theory is, that it's systems which get information about their environment, record it, and change dynamics in some way as a result - truly abstract subjectivity.

I see science thinking as having an implicit unreconciled dualism, that comes from taking mathematics as 'out there' in the same way the things we take measurements of are. But we can come to recognise that mathematics is intersubjective too: The Unreasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics in most sciences A truly objective world requires some locus of experience to say it exists, it implicitly requires a 'mind of god' perspective. But an intersubjective picture avoids this, it says reality is a network, and new dynamics or updates can move through the network changing it's dynamics. Money say is a set of behaviours ideas, but we make it real to our network, and that has real consequences. I submit we can do that kind of unpicking to everything: Objectivity is just reified intersubjectivity. I would also say our volition is not a fact, but an experience, it is from a perspective, and determinism assumes a superperspective, a transcendental closure on causality, that cannot be gained from measurements of the world.

Nagarjuna's discussion of causation, is about showing that our understanding of it is necessarily faulty and incomplete. I like this contextualising of what he is up to: Nāgārjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty’s Strange Looping Trick. TLDR: It is a mistake to think how things are is something we find out, rather than something we do, resulting in metaphysical openess rather than closure. In my terminology: in this very moment we can change our fragment of the peer-to-peer network, which can change not only how people behave, but what reality they live in.

Did the Flower Sermon cause Mahakasyapa to smile, or not? It did; it didn't; both; neither: none of these would satisfy the victorious ones.

  • 1
    The White Flower Sermon may or may not cause Mahakasyapa to smile, however, common sense insinuates it was simply the similar epistemic consciousness level (or dispositional abilities in philosophy modality jargon) of Mahakasyapa compared with that of the Buddha 'caused' Mahakasyapa to smile in this specific case while all others in the same throng had not attained yet, thus this famous story was supposed to act as some sufficient reason (cause) of the Zen lineage to the people in this world who ever sought such a possible why question and not in vain... Aug 15, 2023 at 19:24
  • @DoubleKnot: "a separate transmission outside the sutras, independent of words or writing; it points directly to the human mind, and enables one to perceive one’s true nature and attain Buddhahood" If this was the realm of common sense, wouldn't we all be Buddhas? ;)
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 15, 2023 at 20:42
  • 1
    Sorry for the potential confusion caused. Your above quote is said to be Buddha's own summary words as the true sufficient reason to singly endorse Mahakasyapa as it occurred in realtime if the reader is interested in more specific details and has faith in the authenticity of the said passage. My so called 'common sense' above just means it doesn't take a genius to know there must be some reason why any master/guru would endorse a particular diciple/student while not another (say, the more well-known Anand). This is common and universal in every worldly organization or enterprise... Aug 15, 2023 at 22:10
  • 1
    Even if this story is not authentic, there still might be some (albeit unknown to us) sufficient reason why somebody made up such a story, for example, one can speculate out of compassion to let later Zen followers sought such a possible 'why' question not in vain (especially those more favor Anand, say) as my comment above implicitly implied... Aug 15, 2023 at 22:15

Causation in physics works like this. An initial condition A would cause a final condition B, if taking initial condition A as a premise, the laws of physics dictate that the final condition B must follow.

We may also speak of differences in initial conditions. If initial condition A would cause a final condition B, and a slightly different initial condition A' would cause a different final condition B', then the difference between A and A' would cause the difference between B and B'.

So far I have spoken of what "would cause" rather than what actually "causes." This "would" means we are considering hypotheticals; we are setting up different starting conditions whether they are real or not, and applying the laws of physics to deduce what would result.

Initial condition A actually causes final condition B, if initial condition A would cause final condition B, and initial condition A actually happened.

What is an initial condition? Taking a simple definition to start, an initial condition is a constraint on the state of the universe at an initial time t0. A final condition is a constraint on the state of the universe at a later time t1 > t0.

Instead of constraints, we may speak of probability distributions. In this view, an initial condition is a probability distribution over possible states of the universe at an initial time t0, and a final condition is a probability distribution over states of the universe at a later time t1 > t0.

In a world of simplified physics, such as Conway's game of life, it's easy to see what it means for the laws of physics to dictate a final condition. You just pick the initial state, run the simulation by applying the evolution rule again and again, and see what happens.

In our actual universe the procedure is no different - except that the laws are apparently not so simple, and of course it is beyond human capability to apply them in full detail. So when we speak of causation in our actual universe we are guessing a bit. But we can at least make good guesses, and there is an ideal ground truth to which the guesses refer.

  • Ummm ... I don't think we disagree anywhere? Aug 15, 2023 at 6:26
  • @MoreAnonymous Clearly there is some disagreement, because you said cause preceding effect is a matter of how humans frame things, but I said cause and effect has a ground truth dictated by the laws of physics.
    – causative
    Aug 15, 2023 at 6:45
  • Ah in that case yes. But you clearly think (?) We privilege A' to get B' . These aren't in the framework of physics (id argue) but rather a product of our computation. Aug 15, 2023 at 6:58
  • "In our actual universe the procedure is no different " ... You don't pick the initial condition in our universe Aug 15, 2023 at 6:59
  • @MoreAnonymous Yes, you do. As I said, causation involves hypothetical reasoning, where you pick an initial condition which may or may not have happened, and use the laws of physics to reason how the universe would evolve over time from that.
    – causative
    Aug 15, 2023 at 7:13

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