Front Page Titles (by Subject) essay v: Power, Cause and Effect - Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion
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essay v: Power, Cause and Effect - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion 
Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, Corrected and Improved, in a Third Edition. Several Essays Added Concerning the Proof of a Deity, Edited and with an Introduction by Mary Catherine Moran (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).
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Power, Cause and Effect
As all things on this globe are in a continual flux, much activity and new productions without end, man would be ill fitted for his station, were he kept in ignorance of the laws that govern animate and inanimate beings. Without some notion of power in himself and in others, he would rival in ignorance the lowest of the brute creation, and be utterly at a loss how to regulate his conduct. But he is not left imperfect with respect to this branch of knowledge, more than with respect to others that contribute to his well being. The idea of power is familiar even with children. When they see a play-thing, a never-failing question is, Who made it, or who brought it here? How that idea is acquired, has however puzzled some philosophers, one in particular who shall be introduced by and by. Power is indeed not discernable by any external sense: we cannot see power, nor hear it, nor smell it, nor taste it, nor touch it. Neither can the idea be derived from experience, which, being barely are petition of known facts, cannot produce a new object, nor a new idea. It may give information, that certain known objects are always conjoined, such as fire and heat, the sun and light; but such conjunction is far from being the same with the idea of power.
Power is a simple idea, and therefore incapable of being defined; but no person can be at a loss about it; for it is suggested to the mind by every external action. A being may be so formed, as to have no consciousness of itself nor of what it does; but every human being is conscious of itself, and of its actions as proceeding from itself. A man cannot throw a stone without being conscious that it is he himself who makes the stone move; which imports that he has a power to produce that effect. A child who is learning to walk, reflects very early that it can walk; which in other words is saying, that it has a power to walk. I can, I am able, I have a power, are terms perfectly synonimous. A young boy tells his mother, that he is going to the garden, to pull a flower, or to eat gooseberries. Does not this import knowledge in the boy that he can go, or that he has a power to go? A resolution imports, in the very nature of it, a power to act. In short, there is not in the whole circle of our ideas one more familiar than that of power.
The author of the treatise of human nature has employed a world of reasoning, in searching for the foundation of our idea of power, and of necessary connection. And, after all his anxious researches, he can make no more of it, but,
That the idea of necessary connection, alias power or energy, arises from a number of instances, of one thing always following another, which connects them in the imagination; whereby we can readily foretel the existence of the one from the appearance of the other.
And he pronounces, “That this connection can never be suggested from any one of these instances, surveyed in all possible lights and positions.”* Thus, he places the essence of power or necessary connection upon that propensity which custom produces to pass from an object to the idea of its usual attendant. And from these premises, he draws a conclusion of a very extraordinary nature, and which he himself acknowledges to be not a little paradoxical. His words are:
upon the whole, necessity is something that exists in the mind, not in objects; nor is it possible for us even to form the most distant idea of it, considered as a quality in bodies. The efficacy or energy in causes, is neither placed in the causes themselves, nor in the Deity, nor in the concurrence of these two principles; but belongs entirely to the soul, which considers the union of two or more objects in all past instances. It is here that the real power of causes is placed, along with their connection and necessity.†
He may well admit this doctrine to be a violent paradox; because it wages war with the common sense of mankind. We cannot put this in a stronger light than our author himself does, in forming an objection against his own doctrine.
What! the efficacy of causes lie in the determination of the mind! as if causes did not operate entirely independent of the mind, and would not continue their operation, even though there was no mind existent to contemplate them, or reason concerning them. This is to reverse the order of nature, and to make that secondary which is really primary. To every operation there is a power proportioned; and this power must be placed on the body that operates. If we remove the power from one cause, we must ascribe it to another. But to remove it from all causes, and bestow it on a being that is no ways related to the cause or effect, but by perceiving them, is a gross absurdity, and contrary to the most certain principles of human reason.*
To what a cruel situation does a man reduce himself, when he is led unhappily to adopt a system inconsistent with common sense. Even his own conviction of a gross absurdity, is not sufficient to convert him. Upon such reasoners demonstration itself makes no impression; yet nothing is more clear, than that the very sight of a body in motion suggests to the mind the idea of power.
And to show, that our author’s account of this matter comes far short of truth, it will be plain, from one or two instances, that though a constant connection of two objects, may by custom produce a similar connection in the imagination; yet that a constant connection, whether in the imagination or betwixt the objects themselves, doth by no means come up to our idea of power. Far from it. In a garrison, the soldiers constantly turn out at a certain beat of the drum. The gates of the town are opened and shut regularly, as the clock points at a certain hour. These connected facts are observed by a child, are associated in his mind, and the association becomes habitual during a long life. The man however, if not a changeling, never imagines the beat of the drum to be the cause of the motion of the soldiers; nor the pointing of the clock to a certain hour, to be the cause of the opening or shutting of the gates. He perceives the cause of these operations to be very different; and is not led into any mistake by the above-mentioned circumstances, however closely connected. Let us put another instance, still more apposite. Such is the human constitution, that we act necessarily upon motives. The prospect of victuals makes a hungry man accelerate his pace: respect to an ancient family moves him to take a wife: an object of distress prompts him to lay out his money, or venture his person. Yet no man dreams a motive to be the cause of action; though here is not only a constant, but a necessary connection.*
The reader will take notice, that this author founds the idea of power upon instances of one thing always following another, which connects them in the imagination. According to that account, our idea of power includes two objects, one going before, another following. But what is to be said with respect to a single object, as where we see a man walking? Here there is no connection of one thing following another. It ought therefore to be admitted, that the idea of power is independent of that connection; otherwise, when a man is seen walking, it must be maintained that we have no idea of his having a power to walk. We have a conviction of power from every action, even of the simplest kind. Every man is conscious of having himself a power to act; and he readily transfers the idea to other beings, animate and inanimate.
I have still more to urge, though very little necessary, which is, to quote our author against himself. Though in his Philosophical Essays he continues to maintain, “That necessity exists only in the mind, not in objects; and that it is not possible for us even to form the most distant idea of it, considered as a quality in bodies;”1 yet, in the course of the argument, he more than once discovers, that he himself is possessed of an idea of power, considered as a quality in bodies. Thus, he observes,† “That nature conceals from us those powers and principles on which the influence of objects entirely depends.” And of these powers and principles he gives several apt instances; such as, a power or quality in bread to nourish; a power by which bodies persevere in motion. This is not only owning an idea of power as a quality in bodies, but also owning the reality of this power. In another passage,* he observes, “That the particular powers by which all natural operations are performed, never appear to the senses”; and “that experience does not lead us to the knowledge of the secret power by which one object produces another.” What leads us to the knowledge of this secret power, is not at present the question. But here is the author’s own acknowledgment, that he hath an idea of a power in one object to produce another; for he certainly will not say that he is here making use of words without having any ideas annexed to them. In one passage in particular,† he talks distinctly and explicitly of “a power in one object, by which it infallibly produces the other, and operates with the greatest certainty, and strongest necessity.” No person can give a description of power, considered as a quality in bodies, in more apt or more clear terms. So difficult it is to stifle or to disguise natural perceptions and sentiments.‡
Having thus ascertained the reality of our idea of power, as a quality of bodies, and traced it to its proper source, I shall close this Essay with some observations upon causes and their effects. That we cannot discover power in any object, otherways than by seeing it exert its power, is above observed. Therefore, we can never discover any object to be a cause, otherways than from the effect produced. But with regard to things caused or produced, the case is different. For we know an object to be an effect, when the cause is not seen. No one is at a loss to say, that a table or a chair is an effect produced: a child will ask who made it? We know from the light of nature every event, every new object, to be an effect or production, and consequently to have a cause. Hence the maxim, “That nothing can fall out, nothing begin to exist, without a cause”; in other words, “That every thing which begins to exist, must have a cause.” This maxim cannot be the result of experience, for it is applied to unknown objects and singular events as readily as to the most familiar. Mr. Locke endeavours to evince it by an argument. “Whatever, says he, is produced without any cause, is produced by nothing, or in other words has nothing for its cause. But nothing cannot be a cause more than it can be something.”2 This is a plain begging of the question, for the argument proceeds on the supposition of a cause being necessary. Doctor Clarke has an argument that lies open to the same objection. “Every thing must have a cause; for if any thing wanted a cause, it would produce itself, that is, exist before it existed, which is impossible.”3 Thus, any sort of argument, however frail, passes current even with acute philosophers, when applied to prove a proposition that they before knew to be true. At the same time, they have not adverted that these arguments, supposing them to be strict demonstration, cannot reach children and rustics, who however are far from being ignorant of this maxim. And were there no more, the futility of these arguments is of itself sufficient to show, that the maxim must be founded upon conviction derived from the light of nature.
Further, the sense of any object as an effect leads us to infer a cause proportioned to it. If the object be an effect properly adapted to some end, we infer an intelligent designing cause. If the effect be some good end brought about by proper means, we infer a designing and benevolent cause. Nor is it in our power, by any sort of constraint, to vary these inferences. It may be in our power to conceive, but it is not in our power to believe, that a fine painting, a pathetic poem, or a beautiful piece of architecture, can ever be the effect of chance, or of blind fatality. It may be possible, for ought we know to the contrary, that a blind and undesigning cause may be productive of excellent effects. But we have intuitive conviction, that every object which appears beautiful as adapted to an end or purpose, is the effect of a designing cause; and that every object which appears beautiful as fitted to a good end or purpose, is the effect of a designing and benevolent cause. We are so constituted, that we cannot entertain a doubt of this, if we would. And as far as we gather from experience, we are not deceived.
[* ]Philosophical Essays, Essay 7. [David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (first published as Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding in 1748), ed. Tom L. Beauchamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 7.28, pp. 144–5.]
[† ]Treatise of Human Nature, vol. 1. p. 290, 291. [Hume, Treatise, I.4.14.23, p. 112.]
[* ]Pag. 294. [Ibid., 188.8.131.52, p. 113.]
[* ]A thought or idea, it is obvious, cannot be the cause of action, cannot, of itself, produce motion. It is the mind itself that is the agent. Its power indeed is so regulated as that it cannot be exerted but by means of certain motives present to it.
[1. ]That is, Hume continues to maintain what he had already argued in the above-quoted passage, which comes from the Treatise (184.108.40.206, pp. 111–12).
[† ]London edition, p. 58. [An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, 4.16, p. 113.]
[* ]Page 72. [Ibid, 5.3–4, pp. 120–1.]
[† ]Page 121. [Ibid., 7.2.27, p. 144.]
[‡ ]Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret. [“You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, yet she will ever hurry back.” Horace, Epistles. Satires. Arts Poetica, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, Loeb Classical Library, No. 194 (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1926), Epistles, 1.10.]
[2. ]Not a direct quote, and probably a mistaken attribution. Perhaps Kames had in mind Locke’s statement that “whatever is considered by us, to conduce or operate, to the producing any particular simple Idea, or Collection of simple Ideas, whether Sub-stance, or Mode, which did not before exist, hath thereby in our Minds the relation of a Cause” (Essay, II. xxvi.1, p. 324). In the first edition of his Essays (p. 295), however, Kames cited the above as “a universal maxim” without linking it to Locke.
[3. ]Kames paraphrases the argument found in Proposition XI of Clarke’s A Discourse concerning the Being and Attributes of God.