Monday, June 27, 2011

Every Event vs. Every Effect

I've been toying with the Books Ngram Viewer at Google Labs. The Ngram Viewer graphs uses of phrases in the Google Books library, which holds about 5.2 million texts, and thus, according to Google, at least, about 4% of all books that have ever been published. There are biases, of course -- very heavy slant toward English language works, and the farther back you go the more difficult the texts to read properly. But it includes text not available to anyone online due to copyright issues. In any case, it's fun to play with. Here's an interesting example, on the relative frequencies of the phrases "every effect has a cause" and "every event has a cause". Click for larger view.)

The Ngram Viewer is case-sensitive, so here's "Every event has a cause" and "Every effect has a cause" (with 'Every' capitalized):

I've talked before about my interest in these two variations; 'event' and 'effect' were originally synonyms, but at some point ceased to be so, and this, I think, has affected a number of philosophical discussions, including discussions of determinism and, of course, causation.


  1. Bruce4:09 PM

    That's weird, unless it's a driven by a hostility to religious- or commonsense- naturalism.  To say 'every effect has a cause' is to speak a tautology, and to say 'every event has a cause" is to deny both divine creation and miracles after the start of creation.  The latter is also an empirical claim, and it is apparently put forth as a materialistic faith claim.  As in, "Because we know by faith that the universe is materialistic and mechanistic and that there is no God, therefore we also know by faith that every event has a cause."

  2. branemrys5:02 PM

    I've actually wondered if it might be the reverse; if the divergence of the terms may have at least obscured some major shifts in thinking, and thus been a driver, or at least an enabler, of positions antagonistic to religious or commonsense naturalism. Certainly if you look at discussions of 'every event has a cause' in the late nineteenth century and the early eighteenth century, there seems at least sometimes to be a dual process going on: 'every event has a cause' is treated as the self-evident principle it had been when it was just another way of saying 'every effect has a cause', but it often seems to be underwriting some of the meaning you note that it has come to have. (I think this is particularly noticeable in discussions of free will and determinism, although it also causes some major confusion in discussion of causal arguments for God's existence.) You still actually get that here and there, I think; what you are calling faith I think many of the culprits would call self-evidence or analytic truth. Indeed, I have come across such claims in more recent times.

    But, of course, it's hard without a rigorous survey (which in this case would be a massive thing) to determine what's really cause and effect in these changes.

  3. branemrys5:39 PM

    An interesting thing to do is to look at what shows up on Google Books when searching for both phrases occurring together. In the nineteenth century you get a few hits where they are obviously treated as the same, but increasingly it becomes common to treat them as different with a reference to Kant's analytic/synthetic difference; a few authors over the century and a half note that 'event' is ambiguous or that people seem sometimes to confuse the two claims. It would be interesting to know how much of the twentieth-century discussion of "every event has a cause" is due to discussion of Kant, and also how much of it is due to people trying to figure out what in the world it actually means.


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