Every action that occurs in the universe has a cause, according to Objectivism. But an action is not caused by some earlier event or series of events, and nor is it caused by random chance or the whim of a supernatural deity. Rather, every action in the universe is caused by the nature of the entity which acts. This is Objectivism’s law of causality. The law of causality is the law of identity applied to action.
Rand’s law of causality is basically the same thing as the law of identity, just pertaining to things that entities do. “To be is to be something,” writes Peikoff, “and to be something is to act accordingly” (OPAR, 17). In this way, the law of causality is a corollary of the law of identity rather than an axiom itself. It is a self-evident implication of an already established principle (15), flowing naturally out of the axiom which precedes it.
Just as all entities have certain characteristics and not others, so do entities act in certain ways and not others. For example, when thrown at a wall, a ceramic plate will smash into pieces while a rubber ball will bounce back at the thrower. A water balloon will splatter. A feather will probably not make it all the way over to the wall but will flutter around in the air before eventually coming to rest wherever the movement of the air pushes it. The law of causality states that entities will always act in accordance with their natures and in no other way. A feather will not splatter against the wall, spewing water in every direction; nor will a rubber ball shatter into hundreds of ceramic pieces. A plate will never make a good item with which to play Wallball because when thrown, a ceramic plate will always shatter (given that the wall is made out of concrete and that the plate is thrown with force). Within a given set of circumstances, an entity will only act in the one way that its nature allows—the way that expresses its identity. Entities can never act outside of or in contradiction to their natures. The only reason a plate will ever not shatter is if the circumstances change (i.e., if it is thrown into a swimming pool). All actions in the universe are the actions of entities, and the actions of entities are limited by their natures.
What is the significance of the law of causality? If Rand’s cause and effect principle is true, then the universe can never be described as chaotic. Chaos doesn’t exist, and neither does random chance. Everything that happens happens because the entities involved have certain attributes and will always act in certain ways when the circumstances are right. There are no such things as mystical, supernatural, or random occurrences. Rainbows are not placed in the sky by a supernatural deity sending a message to humans about how he will never flood the earth again. Rather, rainbows occur because rain has a specific nature, light has a specific nature, and air has a specific nature. When the circumstances are right (water droplets are floating in the air, the sun is behind you, the clouds are cleared away from the sun, and your viewing angle is 42 degrees) you will see a rainbow. Ta da!
This is natural law. Natural law paves the road for science!
The law of causality is a metaphysical principle rather than an epistemological one. It specifies only that which is; it does not specify what we can know or predict. Just because this law rules the universe does not mean that humans will necessarily be able to predict specific events. “Our ignorance of certain measurements, however, does not affect their reality or the consequent operation of nature” (17), writes Peikoff. Causality is totally independent of our consciousness. Things do, in fact, act in accordance to their natures, whether we are able to predict the movement of subatomic particles or not. So, on the one hand, while the law of causality does not give us knowledge of specific actions or why they happened, neither is it subjective. As Peikoff puts it, “causality—for Objectivism as for Aristotelianism—is a law inherent in being qua being …. It is part of the fabric of reality as such” (17). The universe is made up of entities that have specific identities and act in certain ways and only those ways. This will never change. It just is. After all, “to be is to be something,” and whatever a thing does, it does because of its nature.
Questions and Concerns:
- Peikoff says that the concept of entity is “an axiomatic concept, which is presupposed by all subsequent human cognition, although it is not a basic axiom” (12-13). What is the difference between an axiom, a basic axiom, and an axiomatic concept?
- It seems like everything that exists (except for axioms) can be reduced to component parts, each of which is an entity. But each entity, whether it’s composed of a billion entities or just two, has a specific nature according to the law of identity. But how would you determine, say, the “nature” of “Amazon.com” or “public schooling” as entities? These entities have millions of moving parts and components and are capable of hundreds, if not thousands or millions of actions. This seems like it may be an epistemological question rather than a metaphysical one, but I am not sure how one would determine the nature of such a huge and complex thing.
- But what about human beings? How does the law of causality apply to entities who have free will and the power of choice?
- Does Peikoff really think that humans, with their power of choice, can only ever act in one way in a given set of circumstances? Isn’t that rather deterministic? I thought Rand believed in free will.
Level of Difficulty: Medium
Mystery Number: 85
- Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991). New York: Meridian, 1993.