On Backward Causation

Time travel stories are lots of fun, but they are famously riven with paradoxes. And that can make it hard to enjoy them. If the future influences the past, is it not then past to that past, and so not future at all?

Such apparent paradoxes arise from a misconstruction of causation. They appear when we misconstrue causation by reducing it only to its efficient and material factors. This is the quintessentially Modern error; which is to say, the nominalist error. Efficient and material causation are essentially temporal, which is to say, strictly mundane (cave: so far, at least, as I have yet understood them). But causation is not limited to effect and matter. There are also, of all events, formal and final causes. And these are not temporally pegged; are not materially or efficiently pegged.

Whereas a concrete mundane thing has some spatiotemporal locus – whence arises its material and efficient causes – its formal and final causes do not. They are, rather, eternal and universal.

That’s why nominalism misses them. For, nominalism rules out real universals, real forms that have final properties. It cannot therefore adduce them as causal factors. It can, rather, recognize only material and efficient causal factors originating in mundane actuals. Nominalism then tends implicitly and directly to materialism, and scientism.

Nominalism tends to stupidity.

Forms and their final ends in other forms (every form is characterized in part by an urge toward the realization of some other forms) are eternal, and arrive for their material efficient mundane instantiations from a non-temporal source. They arrive at any given here and now, that is to say, from a source that is not only there and then – though it is that, to be sure – but is also always, and everywhere. They arrive from a temporal address that is eternal, and a spatial address that is universal. Thus their primordial temporal address is the future, and likewise also the past; for it is eternity. Likewise is their primordial spatial address everywhere; for it is ubiquity.

Formal causes, then, and their final urges, appear within causal systems – within, i.e., extensive continua such as characterize our own world – from without those systems. Formal causes, and their final urges, appear to us then at first devoid of spatiotemporal vector. They appear, that is to say, not only from within the corporeal world – from within its space, and from within its time. They appear rather from the environing context of this world’s spatiotemporal extent.

Mundane events then arise in the first instance from a transmundane basis.

What this means in practical terms is that their causal inputs are not limited to those of their actual mundane past. To the extent that a mundane event is informed by factors never yet manifest in its mundane past – i.e., to the extent that it is a truly *novel* event (which is only to say, to the extent that it is in fact an event in its own right, and not a mere aspect of some other apparently prior apparently different event) – it is caused by factors that have no temporal address.

Notice now that – provided it is real – a causal factor that has no temporal address can be found at all temporal addresses.

Consider then that, as having all arisen originally from a matrix of timelessness, all events whatever have “everywhere and everywhen” as the first and implicit argument of their loci; as, so to speak, the matrix within which, and by which, the vectors of the other arguments of their loci are specified in the first place.

To make that a bit more clear, consider a two dimensional Cartesian coordinate system. The locus of a point P in that system is specified by two arguments: its projection on the x axis, and its projection on the y axis (for, P is the projection of certain conjoint values implicit in the x and y axes of the system space; is a projection of certain formal properties of the system space). The address of the locus of P in the coordinate system – which is to say, in a prior extent or volume (spatial or temporal or both) – is specified by some values of x and y. When we then say that the first and implicit argument of P is “everywhere and everywhen,” what we mean is simply that P is located *in that coordinate system.* The first argument of the specification of P is the specification of the x and y axes. And these are prior to any P.

P(x, y) is located at the intersection of projections of x and y for some values of x and y. The first argument of the locus of P, then, is “(x, y),” for *any* values of x and y. Until the x and y axes are specified, there can be no values of x or y in P(x, y).

What this means – one of the things this means, among many others – is that, as having originated primordially from a locus of ubiquity along all extensive dimensions, each new event has arisen – at least in part – from factors that shall “cook out” of the process of becoming – which is itself prior to time, and thus atemporal – with spatiotemporal addresses located in its future.

Some of the factors of E are spatiotemporally located in what shall, mutatis mutandis, be its future.

Thus there is no paradox involved in so called “backward causation.” Causation can be known and understood as backward (or, for that matter, forward) only ex post facto. Is there something of event E that has never yet been seen anywhere in its world? It is insofarforth caused by factors prior to its time, transcendent thereof, and therefore located both in its past and in its future.

Notice then that every distinct event E is to some extent novel – or else, it could not be picked out as an event, at all. To that extent, its causal factors may as accurately be said to arise from its mundane future as from its mundane past.

All temporal events cook out of a matrix that is prior to time, and transcends it. Their temporal addresses are late aspects of their development, specified only in their final completion, when they have attained full definiteness. Only then can they be truly said to be, and so to have properties such as causal relations that are spatial or temporal (or anything else).

This is no controversial statement. Indeed, it is virtually tautologous. It is to say no more than that an event E(t, p) cannot have happened at time t and place p until it has there happened.

At every moment of their adventures, Doc and Marty are cooking out of a transtemporal matrix, and from the transtemporal perspective of their origination, all those moments cook out all at once, and together. There is no paradox.

Things must arrive as a coherent whole, not just across all space, but across all time. Otherwise, they could not arrive at all.


PS:       All that said, and granting that some irreducible budget of the causal factors of any mundane event must arrive to it from temporal loci addressable in its future, travel backward in time may nevertheless not be practically possible. To the extent that you find yourself already located at some time t, it is probably not possible for a moment of your personal future to be located in your personal past.

18 thoughts on “On Backward Causation

  1. Pingback: On Backward Causation | Reaction Times

  2. The difference between material causation and formal causation lies in the fact that material causation lacks spontaneity and adds nothing to the universe; whereas formal causation, proceeding (and take that word, please, in its strictest sense) from nothing, partakes in spontaneity hence also in freedom and therefore increases the being of the universe. (My “nothing” is justified because a form is not a thing.) Material causation is a train of dominoes toppling. Formal causation is: “Let there be light!” Material causation enslaves — precisely to matter. Formal causation liberates — from just that enslavement.

    • Under the antiquated modern conception of matter – in which it is dead stuff – that is certainly true. But matter in classical metaphysics – i.e., matter properly so called – is a far richer notion. In fact, it is the *opposite* of the modern concept. It is the capacity to take form; i.e., the capacity to happen. It is *potentiality.*

      Dead stuff can’t happen. It can’t change, can’t move. In a cosmos entirely composed of dead stuff, nothing can really happen. This is why modern materialists generally find themselves forced to determinism.

      If anything, it would be more accurate to call the matter of classical metaphysics *alive.* And not a few physicists have found themselves tending toward understanding the stuff of our cosmos as lively. There’s really no other way to understand your own incarnate, embodied experiences (such as your thoughts about, say, matter, or determinism) as really happening; as, i.e., real.

      This is why modern materialists generally find themselves forced to eliminativism – to, precisely, the conclusion that their own conscious experiences are not real.

      • The materialism of Epicurus and his school postulates a universe, not exactly eternal, but with no temporal beginning and no temporal end, to which, furthermore nothing can be added and in which, therefore, nothing novel can occur (see your discussion below). As Richard and I remarked to a good friend of ours at the bar not too long ago, who also, like the Atomists and Fred Hoyle, posits a “steady state” universe: Such a universe would be meaningless; the notion of causality would be irrelevant to it; it would stem, not from nothing, but from nowhere, and it would be on its way to nowhere. It would be a prison of determinism for any consciousness that might occur, a triumph of demonism over freedom. In the “Let there be light” indwells the revelation that the world never streams from nowhere to nowhere, but from somewhere and somewhen and to somewhere and somewhen, after which there comes an apokatastasis to another level of being, and that meanwhile God is now here!

        The Big Bang Theory, first formulated by a Catholic priest named Lemaitre, has been adopted as the consensus of modern astrophysicists, but rather ironically, as it replicates the ex nihilo creation of Genesis, minus the theology and the metaphysics. Nevertheless, the theology and the metaphysics seem regularly to sneak back into the discourse.

        Marx admired Epicurus, but he despised freedom. There is no apokatastasis in Marx, only a Blutrausch, a “Blood-Rush,” that befalls the Revolutionary when he kills a class-enemy, and which magically ushers in the Nowhere of the Communist utopia. When I see leftwing mobs and Antifa in action on the streets, I see people enslaved to an anti-idea of determinism, as though they could do nothing else but what they are doing. It is an appalling Unfreedom.

  3. “Notice then that every distinct event E is to some extent novel”

    The same is true of causes. To say of any two events that “If C occurs, then E will follow” is always subject to the qualification, “If C occurs, then, unless c1, or c2 or c3… occurs…”

    Thus, the principle ‘same cause, same effect’ is utterly otiose. As soon as the antecedents have been given sufficiently fully to enable the consequent to be calculated with some exactitude, the antecedents have become so complicated that it is very unlikely they will ever recur.

    In other words, by the time you pack enough material into C to guarantee that E will follow, C is so complex that we cannot reasonably expect it to occur more than once. But any C that occurs only once will inevitably be succeeded by any E that just happens to occur on that occasion.

    That is one reason why scientific laws do not deal with causal relations at all but, rather, with functional relations between variables; they are not propositions but propositional functions

    • Yes. An event is an integral togetherness of its causal factors, coherently composed. To the extent that events differ, so do the assemblages of their causal factors. No two light cones or world lines can converge on exactly the same formal specification; if they could, they would be the same, singular light cone and world line. So, you can’t obtain more than one thing in the same way at the same time and in the same place. This is one of the reasons different incompossible events are disparate in space and time.

      I forget who wrote that space and time are the way the cosmos prevents everything from happening at once, and thus from all being just one thing. Space and time then are, like disparity in general, manifestations of the Principle of Plenitude.

      As soon as the antecedents have been given sufficiently fully to enable the consequent to be calculated with some exactitude, the antecedents have become so complicated that it is very unlikely they will ever recur.

      Indeed, no event can recur. If it could, then on Leibniz’ Identity of Indiscernibles, the recurrence of event E would *just be* E; which is to say that it would not be a recurrence in the first place, but rather simply another manifestation of the occurrence of E.

      … any C that occurs only once will inevitably be succeeded by any E that just happens to occur on that occasion.

      Sounds like Hume! But then, your next paragraph flips the gist of the comment back toward realism; for, there are such things as true functional relations between variables.

      Ockham’s Razor obtains for systems of functional relations between variables, but not for systems of actual events – for real worlds. If Ockham’s Razor were an ontological principle, there would be no world. The ontological principle that obtains for systems of actual events is the Principle of Plenitude.

      • ” … any C that occurs only once will inevitably be succeeded by any E that just happens to occur on that occasion.

        Sounds like Hume!”

        Does a bit. But all it means is that notions of cause and effect cannot be used to distinguish any given sequence of events from any other.

        Of course, the differential equations themselves are different to the theories used to account for them or to explain them; The explanations given in the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems are quite different, but school algebra will enable one to harmonise Ptolemy’s epicycles of the outer planets with Copernicus (Without going into details, their periods are all 1 year and their vectors all point in the same direction, like so many clocks telling the same time i. e. they are maintaining a constant distance from the sun; in short, they are circling it)

    • The laws of science are not exhausted by their mathematical formulations. The actual law accompanies the mathematical expression and is causal.
      For instance F=ma means that force applied causes a body to accelerate.
      Or the equations that relate spacetime curvature to mass-energy density G=8*pi*T, the physicists say that mass-energy causes the spacetime to curve. Explicit causal propositions are norm in physics though perhaps not in 18C philosophy.

      • Bedarz, I am not altogether sure what you are saying. But if you are saying that F = ma – the law thus formalized, and not its mathematical formalization – itself causes masses to accelerate, then it seems to me that you are laboring under a category error. Forces accelerate, but laws of acceleration do not. F = ma is true of the billiard ball and its inertial frame whether the player has applied a force to it or not.

        But again, I am unsure what you are saying.

      • “For instance, F=ma means that force applied causes a body to accelerate.” But F is simply a variable. All the formula means is that ma can be substituted for F wherever it occurs in the formulae and the relation between the terms of the formulae are functional, not causal.

      • MPS: The formula isn’t the law but merely its mathematical expression. The meaning of the formula goes beyond the formula.

        You will find plenty of causal statements in physics textbooks which I suppose carry more authority physics-wise than whatever philosophers imagine about physics.

      • Howsoever authoritative he may be regarding his chosen subject of study, a physicist – or anyone else – who proposes philosophically incoherent propositions about physics – or about anything else – is speaking incoherently, period full stop.

        The only way that laws can cause things to happen is if they are characters of actual, concrete substantial beings. This is not how most physicists construe natural law.

        It is however exactly how Christians construe the Logos, and all his angels. So, maybe that is what you mean to adduce.

        But I have not heard of any physics textbooks that construe the natural law as a being.

      • Kristor
        Please re-read my first comment
        I have not said that the law causes motion but that F= ma means that the force F causes acceleration and thus the laws of physics are causal
        There is nothing surprising — physics id by definition the study of efficient causation
        Only surprising thing is incoherent philosophies being espoused by many philosophers

      • I commented on the Humean view point expressed by MPS–the error that the laws of physics are mere equations having no causal meaning. It is also an error to think that if F=ma then F is merely a synonym for ma. As any physics book informs, F is calculated from the configurations of the particles involved, for instance.

  4. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that the Fall of Man affected the past as much as it did the present and the future, thus perhaps explaining in part the millions of years of evolutionary carnage we find in human pre-history and the history of life on the planet.

    • What we do resounds in eternity; i.e., it echoes through all the ages of all the worlds, all of which transpire in and by eternity.

      When we Fell, we fell into a different sort of world than we had theretofore inhabited, with a different sort of history. It’s a forecourt of Hell, as well as a forecourt of Heaven. It is, precisely, profane: outside the precincts of the Temple. It is ontologically amputated: its access to its higher better portions is cut off.

      Life before the Fall is to life now as life now is to the corruption of death.

      • Nicely said. It seems we fell into a world already corrupted by a previous (angelic) Fall and ours merely compounded the mess. We were to Edenize the world outside the walls of the Garden, but we sinned before really getting a chance to and so were banished to and became a part of that corrupted world. This is a much better theodicy, at any rate, it seems to me, than those that seek to excuse death, disease, predation, natural disasters, and the like before the Fall of Man as somehow part of God’s originally “very good” plan for creation.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.