Cause, reason, purpose

“I am glad I studied so hard.” Yes, your studies were the cause of your success. But that does not mean your success was the purpose of your studies. Perhaps you studied because your mother was always making sure you did your homework, while you had no understanding yet of how important it was. As we become aware of purpose and aspiration, we become free agents to an ever higher degree. This freedom is itself a source of joy. We are willingly stretching toward the future, rather than being pushed blindly onward by our past.

In my previous entry I showed how time is actually hidden to our senses, but is reconstructed in our mind to such a degree that we are honestly convinced that we experience it continuously, despite the evidence of our senses.

To continue this topic, I want to bring up something strange and disturbing. It deals with how we, at least in English, merge two very different concepts – two almost opposite concepts, in a sense – into one. And then we apply them where they don’t belong. Or at least that is a strong tendency.


If we look at our own mind, we can see that we have reasons for everything we do. Well, sometimes they can be hard to see afterwards, but generally we always have a reason. However, this word “reason” actually hides two very different concepts. These will become obvious when we look at the line of time that stretches through our life.

The first reason is “cause”, as in cause and effect, causality. It can be said to push us from behind, from the past, into the future. “I started eating because I was hungry” is an example of this.

The second reason is “purpose”, which pulls us from the future toward a goal there. “I stopped eating after one small portion because I did not want to get fat” is an example of this.

In practice, however, we don’t really differentiate between the two. We may not even be sure ourselves which was which. You may say you ate because you were hungry – a cause from the past – but didn’t you actually eat in order to stop feeling hungry, a purpose that was still in your future at the time?

The answer in this example is pretty obvious because dogs, garden snails, even amoeba will happily start eating when hungry. It does not require any awareness of purpose. In so far as there is a purpose, it is not in the animal doing the eating, but is somehow imposed on it without its will. The creature does not reflect on this and then come to the conclusion that, on the whole, eating is better than this gnawing feeling of hunger, so it would be best to take action.  It happens automatically. But in the opposite case, when we choose based on purpose, we don’t have the same enthusiastic support from our instincts. I am sure you can testify to this from your own experience.

But even though this particular case was pretty easy to solve, we can often kid ourselves if we are really motivated to do so, and see a purpose in what was a cause. This is particularly easy for ourselves, but as children we are even more slippery than that.

It is perfectly normal for a child to attribute purpose to lifeless things. Particularly if they move, but even if they just stand there, as long as they somehow get in our way. It is not uncommon to see children get angry at furniture. And pets, who admittedly have their own will, are suspected of quite convoluted plots.


Once we grow up, it seems to me that people tend to favor either causes or purposes, depending on their attitude to religion, and regardless of whether each particular instance is a cause or a purpose. Let me explain.

People who are strongly against religion tend to believe that there can be no purpose. The universe is determined from the start, the effect of one cause is the cause of the next effect, an endless chain of reaction like falling dominoes. Humans are powerless to stop this, because we are matter like all other matter, and follow the laws of matter. We are made of atoms, which follow quite simple rules. Therefore the same applies to us.

Conversely, those who are strongly in favor of religion tend to think that everything happens for a purpose, and this purpose is the reason why the things happened in the first place. The roof tile fell down to teach me a lesson. Since everything has a purpose, the cause is irrelevant: God is every cause, and studying laws of causality is a kind of blasphemy.

I believe these intense opinions come from a lack of understanding of the time axis.

The problem with them both is that they are contrary to observable reality. There can be no doubt that causes and purposes both exist, because we can directly observe them. Even if we manage to define one or the other out of existence, that does not change reality. It will be there despite our protests.

Think of water. It consists of hydrogen and oxygen, and without the both of them it would not exist. Remove all the hydrogen from the water and there is no water anymore. But that does not mean the properties of water are simply an average of the properties of hydrogen and oxygen. When things combine, at different levels we get changes that we call “emergent behavior”. Molecules are different from the atoms that make them, but cannot exist without them. Cells are different from the molecules that make up the cells, but cannot exist without them. And so on.  You cannot predict from an existing lower level what the property of the next level will be. It is not possible. Only when the combination has occurred can you say what it ended up being.

In the same way you cannot define purposes in terms of causes, but this does not mean there are events that have no cause. It is just that at a certain point it makes more sense to define the event by its purpose rather than by its causes, since the causes are no longer obvious but the purpose is. Again, compare this to insisting to talk about hydrogen and oxygen whenever we mention water. You don’t need to remind us what water is made of. At some point it makes more sense to focus on its properties as water, OK? And likewise the fact that water is thoroughly different from hydrogen and oxygen does not mean that it must necessarily be made from water atoms. It is a matter of what level or domain we look at.

So if you have a mental mastery of time, and are able to look forward and backward, you will be able to seamlessly look at causes and purposes without getting needlessly confused. I wrote out some theological implications of this, but did not publish this. Religion has great power to wound or to heal; one like me should not wield it casually. But see if you can remember that the “reason for” an event can be a cause, a purpose, or both depending on who looks at it and from what perspective. Causes shove us forward from the past, purposes pull us toward our goals in the future.

3 thoughts on “Cause, reason, purpose

  1. This is a very good way of explaining the difference between causes and purposes! Not something most people think of, period, but the difference is quite large in actuality.

  2. I can thank my new acquaintances on Google+ for discovering that even intelligent humans don’t grasp this intuitively. I guess they have other things to think about, whatever it may be. ^_^

  3. I’d never have thought to clarify the difference between the two, but I think that I and mine understand the difference. Telling it as you did is where you have such an advantage over most people!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *