Friday, June 25, 2010

"Causes" and tense

Suppose A is earlier than B and A causes B. Some possibilities. Suppose A is present and B is future. We say:

  1. A will cause B.
Suppose A is past and B is present. We say:
  1. A caused B.
Suppose we're some time in between the time of A and the time of B. We say:
  1. A will cause B.
So, we transition from "A will cause B" to "A caused B" without there ever being a time when we say "A is causing B". This is different from many other relational locutions. First, we might say "A will love B". In the end we might say "A loved B". But in between there is a time when we would say "A is loving B".

The verb "to cause" seems to fit not too well into the tense structure of English. I think that this is because it is a relation best expressed in a tenseless language. And if it is a natural relation, it is a relation that is apt to be problematic for presentists.


ryanb said...

I think we do sometimes use the locution "A is causing B." For instance, people sometimes ask questions of the form, "What is causing B?" And, in response, folks will say, "Oh, A is causing B."
At first, I was thinking that this usage didn't quite match the transition you discuss involving verbs like "to love." And, it doesn't, quite. But, it might still be important. For, when we try to make sense of what we're sayig when we say that "A is causing B" as above, it is plausible that what we're saying isn't just that A has caused B numerous times in the past, but that in addition A is causing B now. And this does seem to be closer to the transition that you're looking for.

enigMan said...

Yes; and if A is present and B is future, we may well say that A is causing B, rather than that A will cause B. If A is currently engaged in the causal process, and B is future because it only appears once the causal process is finished, then we might say that A is causing B to be. E.g. excessive air travel is causing some island to go the way of Atlantis.

Anonymous said...

I dunno, maybe you're just thinking of examples that are (more or less) instantaneous? In many cases, the causation would be over before we could finish saying, "X is causing Y...".

But it seems quite common otherwise. "Something's causing my front wheel to jam." "The parade is causing a traffic jam downtown." "That voice is being caused by the man behind the curtain."

Of course, English also has many colorful expressions that are really just other ways of saying "is causing": "Stop that whistling, you're giving me a headache!" "Stop pacing around like that, you're making me dizzy!" "Stop with the examples already, you're driving me crazy!"

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe I could argue that the "A is causing B" cases fall into three types:

1. Events A and B overlap temporally.
2. Events A and B don't overlap, but some continuous, or roughly continuous, process is contributing to B in such a way that we can say something like "B is happening", even though strictly speaking the event B may not yet be occurrent.
3. A-type events cause B-type events. In that case, the "is causing" may actually be tenseless.

For instance, "excessive air travel is causing some island to go the way of Atlantis" seems to be of type 2, as we can say: "the island is going the way of Atlantis".

"Stop with the examples already, you're driving me crazy" may also be of type 2, as we can say: "I am going crazy." Failing that, it's type 1.

"Something's causing my front wheel to jam" and "The parade is causing a traffic jam downtown" seem to be of type 1.

But I am no longer sure I have the linguistic intuition I had when I wrote the post. "By setting the timer, I am causing the oven to turn off in 20 minutes" sounds fine. Maybe, though, it is of type 3? Maybe if I mean only to assert a causal relation between the token alarm setting and the token over turning off, I'd say: "By setting the timer, I will cause the over to turn off in 20 minutes."