At a high level, distinguishing cause and effect is typically easy enough: the cause comes first. I drop a ball off a roof; therefore, it falls and hits the ground. But on a fundamental level, physics is local; thus, it seems that, as you get more fundamental, the temporal interval between cause and effect approaches zero. We say that forces cause acceleration inversely proportionate to mass, but at that level the action and reaction are simultaneous. Why (if at all) would it be wrong to say that acceleration causes forces proportionate to mass?

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    As time is quantized, it may approach zero, but it will never reach it. I know this kills your question and means the philosophy out of it, but that's physics for you. :-) Commented Jun 25, 2011 at 19:55
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    @Lennart: I'm afraid I'm not sure what you're talking about. Time isn't quantized (where I use quantized in the sense of there existing a smallest unit, a quanta, of time). Are you somehow suggesting that two things can never happen simultaneously? Commented Jun 26, 2011 at 21:50
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    @mixedmath: Yes, it probably is quantized: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_spacetime I'm saying that the cause and effect can't happen simultaneously. It has the be at least one Planck time between. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_time Commented Jun 27, 2011 at 8:11
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    @Lennart: now I see the sort of quantization you mean. An effective quantization. Commented Jun 27, 2011 at 15:31
  • You question also states difference between Maths and Physics.
    – user2411
    Commented Oct 11, 2012 at 11:00

9 Answers 9


I would suggest that one way to distinguish cause from effect when the two are simultaneous is through material implication.

That is, if at some time two events A and B occur, the cause is that one which implies the other. So, if A being true means B must be true, then A is in some sense the cause of B (I realize that the whole correlation versus causation problem comes up here, but I am only trying to provide a rough model).

For example, suppose that at some time t we have a big spherical mass M (event A), and from a distance r away you (mass m) experience a real force equal to GMm/r^2 (event B). In this case, A implies B by Newtonian gravity. However, B does not imply A: there could instead be a number of different masses that happen to produce that force.

For your example specifically, I think it is important to flesh out the definitions. We say that real force causes acceleration inversely proportional to mass. Fictitious force, on the other hand, is caused by acceleration on a frame (which is caused by a real force or another fictitious force). So, if for that example we have a real force on an object and an acceleration in that object simultaneously, the real force implies an acceleration, but the acceleration does not imply a real force: it implies either a real force or a fictitious force. If instead we have a fictitious force on an object and an acceleration on that object's frame simultaneously, the fictitious force does not imply an acceleration on that specific frame (it could be any frame that happens to contain the object), while the acceleration on the frame does imply a fictitious force on the object. This may seem a bit picky, but pickyness can make all the difference when you're talking about simultaneous events.

I think this is the crucial difference between cause and effect: not temporal separation, but material implication. After all, that's why it's called "cause" and "effect", not "before" and "after".

  • I don't understand the example with gravity. There is gravitational force if and only if there is mass that generates that force, the implication goes both ways. Are now both the gravitational force and the mass both cause and effect? Rephrasing it as "mass" and "acceleration" takes out the information that the acceleration is a matter of gravitation, so that's a trick of language and not a matter of argument. Otherwise, you could say that anything experiencing force causes whatever generates the force: if there is a force, then something must generate it.
    – G. Bach
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 19:34

Nothing at all. This is the same base idea at the heart of non-inertial reference frames.

This is like Einstein's claim (at the heart of his idea that grew into relativity) that it is impossible to distinguish between an accelerating frame or reference and an inertial frame of reference in a gravitational field. That is to say that if we are in an elevator that is accelerating upwards at 2 m/s^2, or on a planet that happens to feel 12 m/s^2 of gravity (that is to say that the force or the acceleration are indistinguishable).

  • The force and acceleration may be indistinguishable, but the cause and effect isn't. Cause: Attraction of mass, effect: Acceleration. Commented Jun 25, 2011 at 19:55
  • @Lennart: This seems not so true to me. As then you would suggest that every acceleration is effected by an attraction of mass (as they are indistinguishable, it is perfectly reasonable to look at any given accelerating reference). But of course, that is not the case - an accelerating elevator is not caused, nor the force caused, by the attraction of mass. Commented Jun 25, 2011 at 20:04
  • I see what you are trying to say, You define the acceleration and gravity to be the same thing, Sure, but that doesn't remove cause and effect. It just merged two things (in effect in an attempt to not have to explain gravitation). The elevator still starts moving as an effect caused by the acceleration. And that movement causes air to be pushed out of the way, etc. It doesn't remove cause and effect, it just redefines gravity so that gravity is acceleration. Commented Jun 25, 2011 at 21:04
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    @Lennart: I am simply restricting myself to the classical examples employed by the physicists who developed relativity. The key fact here is that the cause in one reference would appear to be the effect in the other. And this is not a trivial distinction. It is most common for people to interpret their surroundings in a frame of reference where they are stationary, or whatever they're on is stationary - so if someone is accelerating in a rocket then their observations will fundamentally be different than someone who is stationary on Earth. Commented Jun 26, 2011 at 21:56
  • Yeah, I understand what you are saying. My previous statement stands. I don't think this removes cause and effect in general. Commented Jun 27, 2011 at 8:13

The finite speed of light puts the whole idea of simultaneity into question. For example consider a person A standing in a field halfway between two poles (A+B). He sees a lightning bolt hit each pole simultaneously. He thinks it's simultaneous.

Now person B is standing closer to one of the poles (B) than the other. What does he see? The lightning strikes are not simultaneous at all. Pole B is hit before pole A.

There are many other such thought experiments, but the final conclusion is this:

Fact: simultaneity is relative to the observer because of the structure of our universe. It is not an absolute that two events observed by Mr A to be simultaneous will be observed by everyone as simultaneous. There is not such thing as an absolute clock which can be used to measure these things or determine simultaneity.

Now consider causality. Einstein showed that the order of cause and effect is preserved no matter where the observer is because causes cannot propagate faster than the speed of light. This preservation of the order of cause and effect is again necessary in physics. If it were not so we could have effects occurring before causes. That is obviously nonsense. If you want more on this, look up the Minkowski Diagram.

Fact: Cause and effect order are not relative to an observer. The order holds in all frames of reference.

Therefore: It is a fundamental that simultaneous cause and effect is impossible. The relative nature of simultaneity conflicts with the fundamental requirement that effect cannot precede cause.

  • The two lightnings example doesn't work: @Toph is talking about locality of physics, so the two lightnings should hit the same pole. No matter where you place your observer either one lightning hits the pole before the other, or they hit it simultaneously.
    – artm
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 8:32

Force is an auxiliary concept in Newtonian mechanics, and if you like, you can simply dispense with it. For example, rather than saying that F=GMm/r^2 acts on m, and m's resulting acceleration is a=F/m, you can eliminate F algebraically and say that a=GM/r^2.

The usual way of thinking about causality in physics these days is that you want existence and uniqueness of solutions to Cauchy problems. In other words, we don't think of forces causing accelerations, charges causing electric fields, and so on; we simply think of initial conditions causing final conditions. Re this notion of causality, you may be interested in this paper: John D. Norton, "Causation as Folk Science," 2003. It seems to have been widely discussed, but not necessarily widely accepted. You can find a lot of references by googling "norton's dome." There are good papers by Korolev and Laraudogoitia. This paper is also interesting: Z. Xia, “The Existence of Noncollision Singularities in Newtonian Systems,” Annals Math. 135, 411-468, 1992. There is a good survey in Earman, A primer on determinism, 1986.


I think the biggest difference between cause and effect is that it is the cause that is taking the initiative, not the effect.

In other words, the cause can decide whether the whole cause-effect thing happen or not. Take the acceleration example, the reason you can not take the accelaration as the cause is that the acceleration can not happen on its own will - it has to depend on the force to happen, but the force can happen on its own, whether or not to cause the acceleration.

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    This seems tautological. He even states your answer in his question: cause comes first. I think that the depth of this question is still largely being overlooked. Commented Jun 26, 2011 at 22:03
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    @mixedmath, his statement of "cause comes first" means he just consider as a matter of order - who comes first, but he didn't realize the meaning I stated : about who takes initiative. Commented Jun 27, 2011 at 13:38
  • @SpiritZhang is aiming in the right direction. When we say cause is prior to effect, we aren't necessarily thinking of these causes in the temporal/mechanical order. So even if they are simultaneous temporally, they aren't causally. Note that if you apply a leftward force to an antiparticle, it will move to the right. The effect precedes the cause in time. The way we know which is which is by virtue of a body of theory and the employed method which allows us to interpret these observations. How did Avicenna distinguish between existence and essence and assign one prior to the other?
    – danielm
    Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 11:12

You cannot have cause and effect occurring in the same place (down to less than the diameter of a proton) and at the same time. Cause and effect (the two lightnings) would be the same photon. Cause and effect would clearly be indistinguishable.

The lightning analogy is valid.

Simultaneous cause and effect is impossible in a relativistic universe.

Locality in physics is an observation that we don't have 'spooky action at a distance' as Einstein so eloquently stated. In QM we do have such spookiness, which opens up a whole 'nuther can of worms when you are talking about causality. It's also the basis for a scientific attack on the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

The whole thing is neatly wrapped up by Bell's Theorem which shows the conflict between relativity and QM.

For example of the problems with asserting laws of causality, an experiment conducted in the future can influence results you get in the present.


This is the basis for saying there are uncaused events in QM; the arrow of time is not in question, and all reasonable notions of causality require events occur after causes in the temporal sense. Relativity imposes the additional constraint that the time between the cause and event exceeds the distance / speed of light.

Radioactivity is the most often cited example of acausal events in physics. It caused Einstein much angst. QM however, aided by Bell's theorem seems to be winning the argument.


As I see it, the difference between cause and effect comes down to dependency. In your example, is the acceleration dependent on the force or independent, and likewise is the force dependent on the acceleration or independent? And in this case it can be shown that forces are independent and acceleration is dependent: if I stand on the floor of my house and push against the wall, I apply forces in opposite directions to the floor and the wall, but if the wall is attached firmly to the floor, they apply forces on each other as well. The overall acceleration is dependent on the sum of the independent forces. In my case, the forces sum to zero and my wall does not move - lucky for my unsuspecting family.

Other situations can be examined in similar fashion: the attraction between oppositely charged objects is an effect that depends on the charges of the objects and the laws of physics which are independent of the acceleration of the objects. You could even apply this to larger scales, though when you get into weather or economics or whatnot the number of contributing causes becomes too large to track completely in a feasible manner. But even in the philosophical sense, you could never say that a hammer strikes a nail "because" the nail is driven into the board or that the roulette wheel landed on red "because" I lost $50.


There are basically 2 types of cause and 2 types of effect, inherent cause and external cause, latent effect and manifest effect. By doing something or responding to something(external cause) you ACTIVATE the inherent cause and LODGE THE latent effect to do it again. Therefore you change karma by responding differently to things. ON a macro scale manifest change happens at the speed of light. SINCE ORIGINALLY we were all fundamental particles in a space smaller than an atom through quantum entanglement everything effects everything else simultaneously though on the macro scale because of increased entropy that they seem so removed from each other On the quantum scale energy is always being borrowed from the future ;)

  • There is a lot to this answer, but defining its terms would help the reader; e.g., defining the two types of causes and effects. Commented Nov 24, 2017 at 18:21

Physically, time is only part of our perception, time it is generated by our memory. At a fundamental level, there is no time, photons don't know space or time. Effects are related to causes but that does not imply a sequence in time. The idea of a sequence is created by our memory and our perception of reality.

a+b = c is not really a timed sequence. Both factors are related by a causal mechanism (a+b imply c; forget that c implies also a+b, that is only a mathematical property of addition).

Think of causes and consequences as a page full of related equations. They are just like photograms on a film, related by causality. It is our memory while we read (or a movie projector, in case of a film) that generates a perception of time.

You might wonder how is it possible to say that time is just a perception! What about relativity? Believe it or not, science is based on a lot of human-subjective issues. Temperature, for example, has no physical meaning. We were forced to introduce the 0th law of thermodynamics only to give a physical meaning to temperature. But in reality, there are no hot protons. Temperature is just a feeling on our skin. So are time and space. Relativity is about our perception of time and space. Not about the real nature.

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