At school I am trying to teach causal argumentation in English 112 at the same time I'm trying to teach the American Naturalists (Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris) in American Literature. All is not well.
For years I have had my doubts about cause and effect--which of course puts me at odds with the foundations of modern science and all known human reason and places me, historically, somewhere in the early-middle dark ages.
In a manner that can be best characterized as "obscurantist," I have long suspected that there is no such thing as "cause and effect." I'm not sure exactly what I mean by this statement except that the only cause and effect I seem capable of believing in is so very complicated as to make the notion of cause and effect irrelevant since, for me, causality is always always always unknowable. I know, it sounds awfully religious, doesn't it? The "cloud of unknowing," and all that shit.
I am not saying anything unusual, perhaps, in affirming a concept of causation that basically not only resists the idea that cause and effect can be reduced to a single cause (or a single effect) but also so broadens and tangles the dots necessary to be connected to understand that concept that a declaration that "everything is the cause (and effect) of everything else" is the best I can do to explain it. I am in serious danger of being called a mystic here--and a lunatic. It all flies in the face of reason and logic.
In the fundamental questions of cause and effect that concern me--what caused the universe to exist? what makes a person gay? what is the meaning (overall effect) of my life?--in these questions, I have no interest whatsoever.
If I were to know--to know without any chance of misunderstanding--that the big bang theory is true--or that the Book of Genesis is true, I can't imagine that in any meaningful way my life would be any different than if I were to know (again without any chance of misunderstanding) that it is untrue.
If I could know that I'm gay because my hypothalamus does not "light up" at the scent of female urine--or because I had a domineering mother (or father--and, wait a minute, who doesn't? don't the words "mother" and "father" practically define themselves as at least some form of domination?)--how would any of that affect the irrefutable fact that I am gay?
I realize there are political and religious implications to these questions, implications for justice, too, but, then, so what? Will states and nations acknowledge my natural human rights if there is proof that the cause of my homosexuality was somehow out of my control--that I can't help sometimes liking cock and the other tender victuals surrounding it? Will they? Really? How well has that historically worked for black people and women, who obviously can't be "blamed" for their race and gender?
Will the god of monotheism love me more for knowing that he made me what I am--or that, at any rate, I'm not to blame for my sexual desires and, only in the most limited way imaginable, since so much is governed by opportunity, luck, and "timing," for even my sexual practices? How well did that work for the Canaanites and Philistines? for Jephthah's daughter? for Job? or, for that matter, for Satan?
It seems to me that any single aspect of reality is the product of a confluence of an infinite number of factors--which we can shorthand as "god," "fate," "luck," "destiny," "necessity," or whatever. As Stephen Crane notes, in "The Blue Hotel," "Every sin is a result of a collaboration." The man who murders his wife does so because the means, motive, and opportunity present themselves to a disposition willing to take advantage of them--though, quite apart from the question of his responsibility for his disposition, how responsible can we hold him for all the means, motive, and opportunity? I mean, don't other factors enter into the equation here?
Who's responsible for Michael Jordan's success? Himself? I am not questioning that the man worked hard for what he got. But what role did he have in deciding he would be born at a time when African Americans would be free in America--or when the peculiar skills required to play the game of basketball would occur at just such a moment in history when there is such a thing as a game of basketball, and at a time when players of such a game can receive great amounts of loot and respect?
How much of that could be under any person's control? And if it is under some god's control, what maniacal and quixotic god could claim credit for not only Jordan's wealth and fame but also all the wild, random, and absurd variety that constitutes all of "reality"?
Of course, I accept, with a really limited sort of faith, that boiling causes an egg to firm up, that chemicals can be combined in such a way as to produce a certain and predictable effect, and that cancer can be an effect of smoking tobacco. So, there, yes, I see some small reason to believe in cause and effect--but I can't possibly fathom why these phenomena demonstrate "cause and effect" in some essentially different way than that Tuesday follows Monday (though few would say that Monday causes Tuesday) or that guns are direct causes of human fatalities (but that automobiles are not, the statistics on correlations being what they are).
The best I can do is, with a sort of animal faith, be observant and take note and advantage of the fact that certain patterns do indeed exist in the world (spring-summer-fall-winter and birth-life-death, for two), without pretending to understand--in any deep way--how and why these things are as they are and without overburdening these patterns with too much importance.