The Logic of Causes

Logic is everywhere in our life, and it is very useful in solving some complicated problems. Practising logic is also a good way to enhance our understanding of certain concepts and make groundbreaking discoveries.

I have long been interested in logicology for its pragmatism. When I witness an event, I always attempt to find out its causes. In other words, I want to deduce in what conditions do something happen. There are three types of causes that I regularly consider about.

A precipitating cause is the most direct and subjective description of what makes something happen. We can identify the subject who is acting on the object, and then combine them into one sentence by basic language rules. It is the most understandable (and maybe the most detailed) cause and is generally employed in the field of arts, humanities and social sciences.

A necessary cause is the premise for an event. Only if the result happen can we deduce some conditions are met. Without these conditions, the event cannot take place. However, it is notable that even if the cause exist, there will be possibly no corresponding result. In mathematics and natural sciences, the necessary cause is vital to investigate and analyze many intriguing phenomena.

A sufficient cause is not necessary, but contribute to the event’s occurence. Some conditions can make the incidence of the result, but without them the event may still occur. The sufficient cause can be used to predict what things will happen so that we take actions to alter its impact on the event.

Here are some self-made examples of events and their corresponding causes:

Event: A tsunami in 2004 caused mass fatality in Indonesia.

Precipitating cause: Consecutive huge waves of water striked the ground and hurted many people along the coast.

The cause can be regarded as a witness telling us about how the tsunami takes people’s lives away. The waves of water is the subject that is acting on people, the object, who receive the physical damage.

Necessary cause: There were a lot of visitors and dwellers in the shore of Indonesia.

We can see that when a lot of people are nearby the sea, it is very impossible for something to cause their death. However, should the fatality takes place, there must be visitors and dewellers in the shore to let the tsunami strike.

Sufficient cause: Earthquake in Indian Ocean provided enough energy for water to travel in high speed and immediately attack the ground.

A tsunami can be caused by earthquake. However, other causes, such as volcanic eruption, typhoon or hurricane, and some meteor event, may also lead to its occurence.

Event: Tom got an “F” in General Biology course.

Precipitating cause: During final exam, Tom’s teacher saw him glancing at other students’ answer sheet.

Oops. It’s unfortunate for Tom to fail the exam because he is cheating. This behavior is observed by his teacher, who angrily let him fail the course. (By the way, abide to the academic integrity!)

Necessary cause: Doing something that violates students’ rules.

Assume the school has all smart students. Then, to fail the course, they should violate the policy. The violation may not be observed by teacher, so some students get passed the course without penalty. Well, still, I personally do not encourage that behavior.

Sufficient cause: Cheating on exam.

Cheating on a final exam will automatically give Tom a big F. However, other factors, such as not submitting assignments, missing quizzes, being absent from classes, can also make him receive this embarassing grade.

Event: Bright, shiny and hard diamond became black, dark and soft graphite.

Precipitating cause: Heating of the diamond changed it into a black, powdered substance called graphite.

This is a phenomenon that we can directly observe in real world. The color change is very rapid so that we can say the heating process changes the diamond into the graphite.

Necessary cause: The reaction is thermodynamically favored.

Gibbs free energy change, ΔG°, is calculated using Hess’s Law: ΔG° = ΔH° – TΔS°. It determines the direction of the reaction. Because the entropy change, ΔS°, for the conversion of diamond into graphite is positive (the energy in carbon atoms becomes more dispersed), the higher the temperature, the more negative the Gibbs free energy change will be. The reaction goes to the direction in forming graphite.

Sufficient cause: The heat applied made the reactants exceed the activation energy.

Giving heat to the reactants increase their internal energy, possibly breaking the boundary to change them into transition state. The reactants are said to reach their activation energy, and the reaction can proceed. Of course, there are other ways to change diamond into graphite, like using catalysts, putting pressure on it or just let it stay for millions of years, as indicated by some research studies.

From the examples I mentioned, we can see the logic of causes applies to all the aspects of our life, though the lines among the three types of causes may be not clear if the phenomena have a lot of factors to consider about. Overall, the skill of analyzing the causes is essential. It can not only help us to ace an exam, but also propel our creativity to make benefit to the world. I am sure to keep employing and refining this mindset.

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