The following quotes are from Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

6.36 If there were a law of causality, it might run: “There are natural laws”...

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent

Assuming that we can see the world rightly before falling silent, that 6.54 isn't made incoherent by 7, then Wittgenstein seems to be saying that the law of causality should be surmounted, and thrown away.

How can we think about effects without a law of causality? If not, then surely treating the latter as a ladder would mean there are no effects.

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    I don't understand what you're asking.
    – n.r.
    Jan 26, 2017 at 10:56
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    Can you elaborate on how you see these three propositions connected, please? And, given that, how the collective propositions are connected to your question? Be as explicit and detailed as you can, please. For example, if your word "effects" is connected with W's word "causality", say so, and detail how. Assuming everyone understands what you're driving at will lead to your question being forever unanswered, or downvoted, or closed, etc. Help us help you.
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 26, 2017 at 12:08
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    @DanBron obvs not understanding the site are you asking me to interpret wittgenstein for you so you can answer my question on how to interpret wittgestein? or push a personal philosophy?
    – user6917
    Jan 26, 2017 at 16:00
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    You put forth the idea that (implicitly) "Based on these 3 propositions" (explicitly) "W might be claiming X", but I am not seeing how you arrived at the idea that W is claiming X based on the 3 propositions. You might as well have quoted 3 biblical verses and asked the same question. The post, as it stands, seems incoherent to me, as well as to n.r., it seems. Like last time, I am trying to help you get answers here, and I'm advising you that to attract answers, you'll be better off by clarifying your question. The project of philosophy, in part, is clarifying ourselves, isn't it?
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 26, 2017 at 16:03
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    @MATHEMETICIAN you might also want to mention what this question has to do with Buddhism. Maybe something like "Buddhism says x about causality in the world, how does that interplay with these propositions?" because right now your question has nothing to do with Buddhism. I've studied Wittgenstein for years and I would love to answer this question for you but I'm afraid, as others have said, right now it is not clear what you are asking.
    – Not_Here
    Jan 26, 2017 at 16:51

3 Answers 3


From a quantum mechanical point of view, especially one where the arrow of time is due to statistical mechanics, something like the Feynman's early interpretation that every interaction follows all possible paths, even those backward and forward in time via CPT reversal, there are not necessarily effects, only correlations.

In this picture, anything that can happen, can equally 'unhappen'. Time can flow in either direction, but it generally just doesn't because we are too close to an event of very low entropy. Then what is a cause, and what is an effect? You can claim the rules restricting what can happen are 'causal' in some sense, but they do not establish sequence, and they derive, potentially from the lower-level rules of String Theory that depend solely upon mathematical structure of space.

So the only causal relation you are left with is mathematics. As @MoziburUllah points out here on a regular basis, "nothing + math != nothing", but it does not relate to cause and effect the same way we ordinarily would, and it rules out most observable natural laws as actually causal.

So in 'throwing the ladder away', you may need to ascend from a notion of natural law to one of mere correlation, they same way that in language you need to back off from 'meaning' to evolving convention.


Treating the Law of Causality as a ladder doesn't mean there're no effects, or that we can't think of effects at all. I don't see how this conclusion would follow.

At any rate, Wittgenstein's point here seems to be just another instance of the overall idea of the Tractatus: that a Law of Causality (formulated in a particular language) would attempt to speak of that which can only be shown.

There may well be effects. There may well be causes. Types of causes may well be necessarily and sufficiently related to types of events. Still ...

Still, it is presumably nonsense on Wittgenstein's view to formulate in one's language a proposition saying that all events have causes (a Law of Causality). Why? Because a Law of Causality (as formulated in a particular language) would give the logical form of any possible empirical causal law (in that language). And, according to the Tractatus, for semantic reasons, a language cannot speak of its own logical form. Thus, a fortiori, it cannot speak of the logical form of empirical causal laws formulated in it.

Empirical causal laws (gravitation, evaporation of water, etc.) by relating causes to effects manage to exhibit or show what a Law of Causality would like to speak of---that events have causes.

Having thrown away the ladder, we can still do science (think about the causes and effects of, say, evaporation). What we will no longer want to do is metaphysics and philosophy of science (think about causation and the nature of empirical laws).

  • "I don't see how this conclusion would follow." i thought a law of causality would be a definition of causation, so that without one talking about causation would be senseless. guess i was wrong?
    – user6917
    Jan 28, 2017 at 0:06
  • Without a law of causality, we can make causal statements all the same. First, it may be false that all events have causes, but true that some events have causes. Second, for Wittgenstein (if I get him right), it is a philosophy of causation that is nonsense, not causal statements. Scientific and everyday causal statements (exposure to sunlight causes sunburn; wind toppled this flower vase) are okay for him.
    – n.r.
    Jan 28, 2017 at 3:22
  • hmm cheers. reference for the last statement would be amazing and easily warrant me accepting your answer :)
    – user6917
    Jan 28, 2017 at 3:24
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    Sorry, I'm too lazy for that. I'm here to talk about philosophy with people, definitely not after reputation points. I would even suggest that we set aside the Tractatus, and focus on what really matters, such as whether physics presupposes any law of causality, what a law of causality looks like, whether we need a law of causality at all to make causal statements, whether we need empirial causal laws at all to make empirical causal statements, what causation is, and so on. These are more pressing issues than what Wittgenstein really thought about it when he wrote the Tractatus.
    – n.r.
    Jan 28, 2017 at 3:36
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    My opinion is that we don't need a law of causality to make everyday causal statements (nothing would change for us anyway), but it may necessary for some physicists to presuppose or believe, however blindly, that the law of causality holds in order to see any point in doing science, and eventually to discover or suggest an empirical causal law about this or that natural phenomenon. Without somewhat blindly believing in some law of causality or other, nature is just unintelligible mess. A law of causality is a lighthouse. The classical reading for the latter views is Kant's First Critique.
    – n.r.
    Jan 28, 2017 at 3:53

Causality can be approached under three headings :

  1. The analysis of causation- e.g. the definition of causation in terms of necessary and sufficient, or just sufficient, conditions.

  2. The principle of causality : every event has, must have, a cause.

  3. The principle of the uniformity of nature : same cause, same effect.

If 3. attracts you, then it's fair to point out that there is no logical necessity for the same cause to have the same effect. If every event is covered by a law of nature, then 'same cause, same effect' might be what one expects. But there is nothing logically to rule out singular causation. Consider the following example.

Singular causation without law

It seems to me perfectly conceivable that a particular event causes another without there being any law covering them. Imagine a universe consisting of a single particle which moves around in a totally chaotic way; the particle's state SI at a certain time in no way determines (not even probabilistically) its state S2 at a later time. Since by assumption such a universe is totally chaotic, the particle's motion would not be law- governed. Yet S1 could be the cause of S2. (Gürol Irzik, 'Singular Causation and Law', PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1990, Volume One: Contributed Papers (1990), pp. 537-543 : 537.**

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