Causation, Control, and the Evolution of Complexity

  • Howard Hunt Pattee
Part of the Biosemiotics book series (BSEM, volume 7)


It is not obvious that the concept of causation, in any of its many forms, has ever played a necessary role in the discovery of the laws of nature. Causation has a tortuous philosophical literature with no consensus in sight (e.g., Hart and Honoré 1958; Bunge 1959; Taylor 1972), and modern physics has little interest in the concept. Nevertheless, causation is so ingrained in both the syntax and semantics of our natural language that we usually feel that events are somehow causally explained by almost any grammatically correct declarative statement that relates a noun and a verb phrase to the event: Why did the ball roll? Because John kicked the ball. Why did the ball bounce? Because the ball hit the post. In Aristotelian terms, the verb is a form of efficient cause, and either the subject or object can act as a material cause. If the subject happens to have a large brain we may also attribute a formal, teleological, or intentional cause to the event: Why did John kick the ball? Because John wanted a goal. As a child we figure out that these linguistic forms are transitive and always lead to a vicious circle or an infinite regress, but we are usually told that it is rude to continue to ask, “Why?” when presented with one proximal cause. The major weakness of the concept of causation is this Whorfian dependence on natural language. Thus, the richness and ambiguity of causal forms arises more from the richness and ambiguities of language than from any empirical necessity or from natural laws.


Natural Language Cellular Automaton Linguistic Form Downward Causation Complementary Model 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Howard Hunt Pattee
    • 1
  1. 1.Binghamton UniversityVestalUSA

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