Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

Cause and Effect

“But a machine is not built for creation. It is built for administration. . . . It goes unvaryingly through motions pre-ordained once and for always. And an administration, like a machine, does not create. It carries on. It applies a given penalty to a given breach of the rules, a given method to a given aim. An administration is not conceived for the purpose of solving fresh problems. . . . an administration is conceived as a safeguard against disturbances resulting from human initiative.” — Antoine de Saint Exupery, Flight to Arras (tr. Gallantiere), p52

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the concept of cause and effect. This concept is a common thread weaving in and out of everything we do. Physicists recognize it as the heart of the law of causality. Historians recognize it as the catalyst for past events. Linguists recognize it as an important component in the formation of communication. Philosophers recognize it as part of the process of morality, the notion that our actions have consequences. Students of the law find it essential for being able to judge the actions of another person.

Sitting here, I can’t think of anything for which the notion of cause and effect isn’t a fundamental precept. When you bake, you have to know that adding yeast will make the bread rise. An engineer must be able to predict that if he uses metal beams of a certain thickness, they will be able to support a given amount of weight. Agriculture is one of the oldest examples of how we use cause and effect to produce food plants repeatedly and predictably. We weigh the consequences of our actions before we do them, as we do them, and after we do them.

Religions and sciences are all about cause and effect. The former say that causes are forces we have to take on faith and can never know; the latter says that causes are something we can identify and isolate if we look hard and long enough. Both have become systems of belief, at least for their most devoted adherents

Logic and rationality are doubtless the most effective tools we as a species have ever developed for making cause and effect work to our advantage. Logic and rationality are the foundation of every institution in any society — work, commerce, the law, government, and justice. Any institutionalized activity — that is, any undertaking whose structure and activities have been designed to continue operating the same way over time regardless of who is in charge at any given moment — must be based on predictable causes and effects to survive and to interact with other institutionalized activities in a constructive manner. We take logic and rationality for granted because they make things work so well.

In taking logic and rationality for granted, we overlook the fact that they are artificial creations by us, first formalized (we believe) by ancient Greek philosophers. We must remember that, by nature, human beings are not predisposed to logic. Isn’t it interesting that this sounds like a bad or negative thing to say! We are so conditioned to accept logic and rationality as the measure of all things good. Repeatability and predictability are valued; as animals, we must remember that we are deeply affected by instincts and passions, creative urges, emotions of all kinds. A lot of what we feel and believe, and what we fear, are not related to cause and effect. But there is little in society that allows us to live according to what moves us deeply. People tell us that it’s fine to dream, but how are you going to make a living off of your dreams? Better to settle down and get with the program.

This is where I am right now, fulfilling a societal function that will produce a product that others will use, and in return being renumerated so that I can continue living in society in a comfortable way, while in reality trying to figure out how to let loose the passionate creative forces boiling inside — the writer, the thinker, the explorer, the traveler. This is where we all are right now, except for the people who have already given up.

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