CHAPTER 12. SOURCES OF MODALITY.
Underlying the existence and concept of modality, are the phenomena of difference and change. At any given time, the world appears as a multiplicity of distinguishable phenomena, distributed in space; and across time, the world reappears before us, comparatively differently constituted and deployed.
a. The concept of difference implies that of similarity. If everything was absolutely different from everything else, things would not coexist: they would have nothing in common, neither existence nor space nor time nor any character, each would have to be a ‘world’ by itself; and only one such ‘world’ could exist, which would have but one point of space and time. Thus, paradoxically, to deny similarity is to deny difference; to posit a world consisting only of diversity logically implies that we believe the world to contain no diversity at all, not even dimensions.
While it seems obvious that the phenomenon of motion requires that we postulate a time dimension, a universe devoid of motion but extended in time seems conceivable. While a universe of only two, or even only one, space dimensions (with or without motion) seems conceivable — a universe devoid of space or time (an unextended point and instant, rather than a minuscule and short-lived one) seems unthinkable, impossible not to measure up against infinity and eternity.
Diversity is of various kinds. A thing may for instance be both green and flat, at the same time and in the same place; this is diversity of character in the purest sense, a coincidence of ‘incomparables’. A thing may be both green and red, but only in different places of it or times in its existence; or it may partly or wholly move, and occupy two different places, though only at different times; these are diversity of comparable characters or of location, made possible by the existence of space and time dimensions.
b. With regard to diversity in time, there is no escape from the fact that change appears to be happening; this phenomenon is alone sufficient to demand from us a recognition and concept of change, independently of whether we evaluate given cases as specifically real or illusory.
Some change is indeed illusory, meaning that the newly perceived difference was already there, but was previously unperceived. The ‘change’ is due to the movement of the spotlight of our consciousness, rather than to an event in the object itself. The concept of illusion is built on such ‘changes of mind’; we are not omniscient, our knowledge evolves; every appearance is assumed real, unless or until it fails to be consistent with the mass of other appearances, in which case it is reclassified as illusory.
But some of the change has to be real: to deny this is logically untenable, because even an ‘illusion’ is in itself a specific kind of object. What we call ‘illusory change’ is more precisely a real change from one illusory appearance to another illusion or a reality. The form of change is real enough, it is its particular content which is illusory.
Even if, in an attempt to explain away time and change, all apparent mobility in the material world were attributed to the travels of consciousness, we would still be left with the need to understand the latter movements as themselves changes dependent on time. Therefore, nothing radical is to be gained from such an attempt.
c. It may well be that, at some higher plane of being and consciousness, the world merges into undifferentiated and immobile oneness, which is somehow more ‘real’ than our ordinary, sublunary experiences, because it allegedly unifies and explains them. However, this idea does not logically deny the side by side existence, in some respect, of the variegated and dynamic, illusory lower world.
The appearances of difference and change may be illusory, may be inferior on some spiritual scale, but even so, they have to have a sort of existence. It is a phenomenon presented to our consciousness, which we cannot avoid admitting to exist as such, even if we believe it to be a warped image of an otherwise uniform and static reality. It is conceivable that at some past or future time the world was or will become One; but this in no way excludes the current existence of some form of difference and change, as appears, if only as appearance.
d. In conclusion, the world must stand somewhere between the extremes of absolute diversity and absolute unity, which are incidentally one and the same idea. The mere experience of difference and change, whether real or illusory, is enough to guarantee this fence-sitting position. We cannot logically evade or wipe out this given phenomenon; we can only at most delimit it to some narrower domain and relegate it to some lower status.
Note that mystics of many traditions claim that the conflict of dualism and monism is itself illusory, and that at some higher level the contradiction disappears convincingly. While keeping an open mind toward such a special experience, we may plod on with a logic designed for our commonplace world.
e. Once difference and change are admitted, concepts such as polarity, similarity and quantity, time, modality and causality, are inevitable and needed. If the world was, against experience, without diversity or change, there would be but one polarity, one entity, one character, no space or time, no contingency, only necessity, and no need for causal explanations.
Time and change appear to be extremely fundamental phenomena in our world and experience, and simultaneously very mysterious and difficult to analyze conceptually. At first sight, they seem evident and obvious, but once we try to understand them in a deep way we uncover a mass of difficulties and complexities.
As far as I am concerned, no satisfactory solutions to the crucial problems involved have been found. Some of these ontological issues will be touched upon in later discussion, but for the most part we will bypass them and concern ourselves with formal logical issues.
With regard to Time, let us pragmatically accept, as appears intuitively, the existence of past, present and future, and that events somehow occur in measurable relative locations in this continuum, which we imagine to be a dimension similar to the three of space.
As for Change, it may be pragmatically defined as occurring when something has one property at one time, and not at another time; or lacks it, and later has it; or, compositely, exchanges one attribute for another. Things change across time, losing properties, acquiring new properties, or changing in degree of some otherwise enduring property, or replacing properties. They may change place (that is motion), or qualitative attributes (alteration), or even change pattern of movement (acceleration) or vary in uniformity of qualitative change. Some changes are irregular, some cyclical, and so on.
An assumption that man regularly makes in his cognition of the world, is that objects behave in the way they do, not merely by happenstance, but because this is somehow programmed into what they are, as part of their identity, their nature. This reference to the inner nature of things is a reference to causality, in its widest sense. We believe not merely in the coincidence of the thing and its attributes, but that the particular identity of that thing has caused it to display this particular behavior rather than any other.
Some philosophers deny this assumption, and claim that all we can say is that things just occur, not that they somehow had to. As with all insights, it is a function of the rules of logic to resolve the debate. I accept the common sense viewpoint, because I have found it consistent and useful.
It seems to us to be so, that there is such a thing as causality, it is one of the appearances in the world, we instinctively think in such terms. If there were some solid reason to deny the concept, we would have to, but no convincing argument has been presented by the skeptics so far. Doubt on the mere basis of difficulty of precise definition or explanation, is not logically sufficient. Logically, some things are bound to be irreducible; why not causality? We can know that it is there somehow, while admitting our inability to adduce its essence, in view of its fundamental nature. There is no self-contradiction in this position.
Fundamental phenomena, like universals and difference, time and change, causality and necessity, are inevitably difficult to fully describe and understand, and perhaps even ultimately, in principle, undefinable and incomprehensible. They are so radical to our world that they cannot be reduced to something else. But this in itself is not a reason to altogether reject them. And indeed, even if some philosophers choose to reject them gratuitously, it changes nothing. People will rightly continue to think in these terms, trusting appearance, unintimidated. It works.
The concept of causality is indeed extremely difficult, if not impossible, to define. It is, like attribution, something we intuitively understand, but which is so fundamental that, although we can discuss it to some extent, we can never pin it down. What we can do with relative ease, however, is identify its varieties.
In the widest sense, any event signifies causality; the nature of an object is viewed as the underlying cause of its ‘behavior’. In this sense, any attribute or change, be it permanent or inevitable, or transient or accidental, is caused by the thing being what it innately is.
But more specifically, causality is limited to the suggestion of necessity. It is most often related by philosophers to time and change, or the explanation of movements. But in fact, in practice, even in the empirical sciences, we conceive it as a force explaining static, as well as dynamic, connections.
Indeed, it will be shown further on that there is one type of causality corresponding to each type of modality. ‘Extensional’ causality concerns uniformities or differences relating to universals. ‘Temporal’ causality concerns constancies or changes across time. ‘Natural’ causality relates to necessity or contingency on a deeper level. ‘Logical’ causality concerns the relationships of ideas.
The pragmatic definition of causality by David Hume as merely “constant conjunction”, simply does not adequately capture what we intend by this concept. J. S. Mill equated natural to temporal modality, in an attempt to bypass philosophical problems relating to the former’s definition. He defined the way we induce causality by generalization, as a substitute for telling us what it is.