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Meditation 566
Views of an Agnostic
Cause and Effect

by: Ross E. Browne

This is part 6 of Ross E. Browne's 1915 book, Views of an Agnostic.

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The so-called “law of cause and effect” I have reserved for a special chapter, on account of a feeling of reserve concerning its full acceptance. According to this hypothesis – it is preferable to designate it as such, – every occurrence is the effect of some antecedent cause. It follows that every cause must have a prior cause back of it, and this points to an infinite series of causes, indicating that there is no possibility of a first cause.

There is a modification of this hypothesis to the effect that only those occurrences which have a beginning must have a cause. This admits of the possibility of first or original causes which have always existed. For example, many materialists assume that the elements of substance with their properties of affinity, or attraction and repulsion, have always existed and are the fundamental causes of all the phenomena we witness. We know nothing of the nature of causes. In our efforts to form conceptions we encounter unfathomable mystery in all things great and small, common and uncommon. All things become equally wonderful.

There is some difference of opinion concerning the origin of our belief in cause. Some metaphysicians consider it primarily intuitive or fundamentally necessary to the mind, and say it inevitably applies to every occurrence conceivable. Others regard it as the natural inference of experience. In our early childhood we witness again and again the same sequence of events under the same conditions. This is so often repeated that we soon begin to realize that these events are connected, that the one calls for the other. We are constantly instructed by our preceptors, and gradually come to anticipate results, to look forward for effects and backward for causes. The idea of necessary sequence grows with increasing experience, and especially with the exercise of reason. The more observing and thoughtful among us are led to formulate the hypothesis that every phenomenon must have its cause. We naturally interpret this to mean government by laws or by mysterious powers. The uninstructed are apt to look upon the powers as arbitrary or changeable in their purposes, while the more enlightened regard the laws as constant or invariable.

The scientist, by dint of careful investigation, has established, in a variety of cases, accurate correspondences of the effects of many given causes repeatedly tested under the same conditions. He has added to the hypothesis an additional element. It has gradually become “The hypothesis of complete government by invariable law,” and with this we are herein especially concerned. A vast accumulation of evidence has led to its general adoption and by habitual entertainment it has become more or less intuitive. It is the foundation of the scientific method of investigation. The scientist assumes complete government by invariable law. By the inductive method he endeavors to establish the terms of the law. By the deductive method he seeks new facts as necessary consequences of the law. The great successes of the method have produced the utmost confidence in the hypothesis.

There have been recognized a great number of apparent exceptions; but, from time to time, upon closer investigation, so many of these have been found to come under the rule that we are now prone to assume that there are no real exceptions. Our failures to find causes we attribute solely to the difficulties encountered. In our enthusiastic pursuit of knowledge we have come to adopt the hypothesis as applicable to all phenomena without exception. We even apply it by analogy to cases concerning which we have but faint conceptions.

The precise and accurate work of the scientist, which has led to conviction in this matter, has so far been mainly confined to the field of the simpler physical phenomena which are not governed by animal intelligence. The hypothesis applied to this field is not out of harmony with our natural instincts, and we have so much definite and corroborative evidence, without valid contradiction, in so many branches of physical science, that we may claim justification for its application to all natural phenomena excepting the mental.

But do not let us lose sight of the empiric origin of the hypothesis, and the dangers of analogy in comparatively unexplored ,fields of a radically different type. Experience has already taught us that, while the methods of analogy are valuable for the suggestions they offer, they cannot legitimately he used as bases of conclusions. We have acquired a somewhat extensive knowledge of the superficial phenomena of inorganic substance, and, in fact, of organic substance as well, in so far as it is acted upon by. external forces ; and we have some considerable understanding of those activities of organisms which appear to us plainly automatic; but beyond this we are surrounded with mysteries.

When we pass into the field of mental phenomena we recognize some fundamental distinctions and encounter some new difficulties. Our thoughts are relatively variable and often elusive and intangible. They are not subject to inspection and test in the same sense. We know of no parallel to consciousness in the forms of mechanical energy dealt with in our physical problems. We are in the habit of regarding a subject of analysis as an object, but we should not reach far if we studied only the minds of others. We must resort to subjective analysis, and the subject can never completely regard itself as an object.

Our knowledge of existing relations is limited and does not form a very reliable basis for broad generalization. We have no means of verifying our hypothesis of complete control by law. We readily recognize the effects of many influences, but cannot convince ourselves of complete control. It is safe to say that no series of tests, even approximately comprehensive and conclusive, has ever been made to show the applicability oft our hypothesis to mental phenomena involving what we call voluntary power. In view of our ignorance, the application may only be made by analogy, and, as already indicated, the warrant for such application is questionable. We possess a very stubborn intuition concerning voluntary power, which is in violent opposition to the hypothesis. This subject will be further dealt with in the chapter on free will.