*Note: This is a brief thing I posted to Twitter not too long ago. I’m re-posting it here because (i) I want to post more things like it on this site, and (ii) I still kind of like reading it. For the sake of intellectual honesty, I’m making no changes to the original draft, not even to the bad Hegel interpretation.*
Given two metaphysical claims, we can prove that causation is a creature of the mind, not a feature of the world in itself. First, the Parmenidean premise: non-being is impossible. That is, the world is full of being. Second, a premise about absences and causes: some events are caused by things that don’t happen. After filling in some details, we see how the Parmenidean premise and absences-as-causes premise entail the unreality of causation.
The Parmenidean premise has a robust historical pedigree. Parmenides, for instance, claimed that we cannot think non-being. While we can think about nothingness, and we can simply not think, we can’t think nothing. All acts of thinking take some object, even if that object is a blank space. Thinking of a world of things, each of which vanishes one by one, until the very last winks out of existence, still leaves you with whatever emptiness was there with the last object. Non-being is inconceivable, hence impossible.
While Hegel doesn’t argue like Parmenides does, he shows a similar tendency in the Sense-Certainty and Perception chapters in the beginning of the Phenomenology. Certainty wants to grasp what there is without mediation by concepts, but it can’t achieve this. The best it can do is grasp mediated being, the broadest, most inclusive universal there is, and hence the least informative. (“I see something.” “What is it?” “A being.” “Thank you.”) Certainty cannot grasp the tree before you, the red apple, the white sugar cube, etc. We can only encounter determinate things in perception, but determinate, unified things require negation. To see the two apples before me, I must see that this one is not that one. To see that the apple is red, it must not be green. But negation is not in the world at all. Determinateness only comes into the picture in perception, not in the pure being grasped in sense certainty.
Tractarian Wittgenstein had a similar thought when he claimed, first, that the world is the totality of facts, and second, that there are no negative facts. The atomic facts that make up the world contain no negation. Negation, like conjunction or disjunction, is a logical device, a constituent of our language, not the world. There are no more negative facts (like ~p) than there are disjunctive facts (p v q). So the world of the Tractatus is full of being – or at least, it’s full of atomic facts. It’s full of truths.
Here’s one more way to illustrate the point, inspired by Jc Beall’s Spandrels of Truth. Imagine God creating the world by speaking things into existence, e.g. “let there be light,” “let there be kangaroos,” etc. According to Beall, God could have created the world in its totality without using the truth predicate, and this tells us something significant about truth. Truth, as a logical predicate, doesn’t really apply to the world in the way “kangaroo” does. It’s a great linguistic/logical device, but no more than that. Likewise, we might think that the God of Beall’s parable wouldn’t need to appeal to falsity or negation, either. God could have spoken the world into existence without ever invoking negation. And we can draw a parallel to Beall’s lesson about truth. Negation is useful for creatures like us, but it’s not a deep feature of the world. It’s extra.
There is a clear thematic tendency running through these thinkers. The world is wholly positive. At the most fundamental level, the world just is; it is an undifferentiated unity. Negation only emerges in thinking and speaking.
But negation is clearly useful. We appeal to negation in all sorts of causal explanations. Why are croissants so deliciously flaky? Answer: the butter between the layers of dough evaporates during baking, leaving nothing between the newly-crisped layers. Why did the plant wilt and die? Answer: the gardener didn’t water it. Why did the gardener fail to water the plant? The watering can had a hole in it – in the wrong place. Events cause events, no doubt about it, but absences – non-occurrences, lacks, failures, non-events – can cause too. While the Parmenidean premise required some motivation and illustration, I take it that the absences-as-causes premise takes less motivation. It’s clear that we appeal to negative entities – absences, non-occurrences, failures – in causal explanation. It was the fact that the dog didn’t bark which told Holmes that the suspect wasn’t a stranger.
The interesting question for us now is: what becomes of causation if so many causes are negative in character? Is causation in any way an aspect of reality if a vast swath of genuine causes involve negation? If the answer is yes, this isn’t necessarily a knock against causation. Many things we talk about can turn out to be projections, or mind-dependent in some way, like colors and other “secondary qualities.” More controversially, maybe good, evil, and moral duty are constructed, not discovered. That doesn’t mean they’re not perfectly respectable members of polite society. It would just mean they’re not really out there.
So, if the world in itself contains no negation, and causation often involves negative entities, then causation is not a feature of the world in itself. The argument can be finessed more, but the basic insight is there. What has to be filled in further?
We might have to be more explicit about the jump from the second premise to the conclusion. “Sure,” one might say, “negative causes aren’t really out there, but positive causes might be.” This would be a way to block the conclusion that causation isn’t real: admit that negative causes are unreal, but insist that positive causes are. This might be true, but we’d want an explanation of why we would want to say it, independently of wanting to block our argument. What can be said on behalf of a concept of causation where a good chunk of things in its extension are mere projections? Is there any reason to suppose the remainder aren’t projections as well?
This gives us a hint as to how someone might reject the second premise: no cause actually requires negation of any kind. All negative entities (non-occurrences, absences, failures, shadows, etc.) are token-identical with respectable positive entities. The gardener’s failure to water the plant is token-identical with the gardener napping all afternoon. Napping all afternoon isn’t a negative event at all, but it excludes watering the plant. But there’s the rub. How can we appeal to exclusion (the occurrence of one thing entailing the non-occurrence of something else) without negation? It’s not easy. At the very least, the objection is tasked with overturning or explaining away what really does seem like common sense.
Could we reject the first premise instead? Maybe. It’s an awfully magisterial bit of old-fashioned, stuffy metaphysics. I have to admit that it strikes a chord, though. Philosophers nowadays like to appeal to Moorean facts and philosophize from there. Nothing could be more out of touch than arguing from chthonic first principles like a Presocratic mystic. But there it is. It is inconceivable that the world should have true emptiness in it. The only emptiness is in what we bring to the table.