The "root cause"
In this particular case, there are also many who argue that the "root cause" of the incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is mental illness, and that our nation needs to address the lack of access to good mental health care rather than the proliferation of guns. My good friend Tom is one of those.
|This is Tom and I from WAAY back in 1997.|
I started it by posting an intentionally provocative post on Twitter and Facebook:
[The shooter] didn’t need a f*cking semi-automatic rifle.
I wasn't really aiming this provocation at Tom, per se, but he was the one who took the bait. Tom wrote (emphasis added):
Mental health is the root culprit.To which I replied:
The NRA is the "root culprit."Aaannnd the debate was on!
Here’s where that argument falls apart (and, yes, I believe lobbying should be illegal.) If the NRA vanished tomorrow, we’d still have unstable, deranged people in our society who could use a knife to kill; or a board with a nail in it; or plow a car into a crowd of people; or build a pipe-bomb from common materials. The logic fails when the desire of some people to kill is ignored. Blaming a gun is short-sighted, and to bring such blame to its ‘logical’ conclusion, you’d need to control everything which could or might be fashioned into a weapon - cars, trucks, pipes, batteries, bow/arrows, wire, nails, PRESSURE COOKERS, and list goes on... I see that argument akin to blaming forks for someone’s obesity. The root cause is deeply seated in the brain of a human being who has been damaged and needs psychological help. All the typical warning signs seem to have been ignored, just as in the other tragic cases where PEOPLE - not guns - have gone on a rampage. Don’t ignore the human factor, mental instability is THE root.And later:
My point was simple and direct - mental illness is the root cause of people who abandon civility and turn to killing innocent people. We need to provide better ACCESS to mental health services to prevent people from turning to violence. You, Craig, were the one who disagreed with that by stating that the NRA is the root cause, side-stepping the human factors in their entirety.And more:
Here’s a fact - if I put a gun on a table, it will stay there without harming a soul until the end of time unless someone moves it. If by rational argument you mean I would agree with the notion that a gun killed a person, that’s never going to happen - no more than you might agree that the match stared the fire, not the arsonist...or would you try to make that argument in a court of Law.Then,
I stand by what I said at the beginning - mental health (or lack thereof) is the root cause of mass murder(s), not the inanimate instrument. The only reason I posted that opinion is because I get very frustrated by simplistic, knee-jerk reactions in times of stress and hysteria to very complex issues.(I definitely appreciated Tom's acknowledgement that the overall debate is "very complex," although I don't believe that I myself was offering a "simplistic, knee-jerk reaction." I truly believe that no-one (other than the military) needs semi-automatic assault rifles, and I would ban them forever, in addition to imposing gun licensing requirements at least as stringent as those in place for getting a driver's license.)
One direction the discussion might have taken (but didn't) is to discuss the different types of "cause" from a philosophical perspective. Aristotle ("The Philosopher") identified four types of "cause":
The differences Aristotle identified are interesting in their own right, and they do help us to understand how an event (or "effect") could have multiple causes. Aristotle also differentiates between the general cause(s) of a category of events (such as "mass shootings") and the particular cause(s) of a particular event (such as the Parkland shooting). Because of Aristotle's teleological metaphysics (the view that nature acts in certain directions based on the "proper" function or "end" of an object's underlying substance (earth, air, fire, water, or aether), Aristotle doesn't believe that psychology is what makes things happen in general, but only in particular.
- The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
- The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
- The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
- The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.
To apply Aristotle's view to the current issue, we might say that the "material" cause of mass shootings is guns and bullets; the "formal" cause is the way that a person can initiate an act leading to gunpowder causing a projectile to fly out of a gun and enter a victim's body and possibly kill that victim; the "efficient" cause is the murderers; and the "formal" cause is the basically animal nature or territoriality of humans. (I'm not sure of this analysis... Comments welcomed.) The cause of a particular mass shooting, such as Parkland, might be the beliefs, intentions, or grievances of a particular shooter. In other words, Aristotle would never say that the "root cause" of mass shootings is "mental health" (in general), although he would certainly accept that the "root cause" (or at least one cause) of a particular mass shooting might very well be the mental health of the shooter.
In any case, I didn't bring Aristotle or any other philosopher's views to bear in the discussion with Tom, but I eventually got Tom to admit that an event such as the Parkland shooting might have multiple root causes, although he never retreated from his core argument that "mental health (or lack thereof) is the root cause of mass murder(s), not the inanimate instrument."
The idea that an object such as a gun could be "inanimate" would never have occurred to Aristotle, because he believed nature has built-in teloi or ends which "animate" all of nature. Nothing is ever truly "inanimate" because everything has a "natural" end or function which it must fulfill. Tom's image of the gun on the table sitting there until the end of time unless "someone" moves it is not an Aristotelian one, because Aristotle held that movement is inherent in the chaotic nature of nature: that is, nature is always trying to "sort itself out" by putting things back the way that are supposed to be. (Earth in the center, Water along its surface, Air above the surface, Fire above the Air, and Aether above it all.)
So in Aristotle's universe, that gun on the table would be striving (in a manner of speaking) to get to the center of the universe, and eventually the table would break or be upended by some cataclysmic event and the gun would move ever closer to the center. (The gunpowder might burst into flame, thus releasing its fire, allowing it to move to its proper place as well.)
But most people don't really believe in Aristotle's universe any more. Rather than "proper ends" or "functions" of objects based on their underlying substance, we now have a model of the universe that envisions all physical/material objects as "inanimate" in the sense that they will continue in the direction and speed in which they are moving forever unless forces (such as gravity or magnetism, or the "animate" force of a wilful being) operate on them to change that state of motion (Newton's First Law). According to this more "modern" theory, the gun is "inanimate" in the sense that it has no will, or purpose, or "end" other than that to which it is subjected to.
Now, Tom is an construction engineer, and his professional training and approach to the world is definitely a "modern" one, in the sense that he makes a firm distinction between inanimate (material) things and animate ones (pets, people). I'm not sure if Tom would say that "gravity" is "inanimate," but he would certainly argue that gravity has no "intention" but just is the attraction of masses to one another. To the extent that the Earth (along with the table and the gun on it) is actually moving VERY fast through space would be seen as the natural result of the Big Bang, not some willful movement "toward" anything.
I don't think Tom believes in God, so, for him, the universe will keep going until either it expands so much that celestial objects no longer interact with one another or it reaches a point where the energy of the Big Bang has dissipated to the point that the forces of attraction overcome the forces of expansion, and we get a Big Crunch.
Even in this "modern" view, Tom is technically incorrect that the gun will stay on the table until the "end of time." The Sun will probably at some point consume the Earth or flame out, and the forces on that gun on the table will change in ways it's hard to predict. Not only is the gun moving NOW, it will be moved eventually (probably many times), even if no person every picks it up off the table.
But Tom can be forgiven for his figure of speech about the end of time. Practically, for us, that gun might very well sit there on the table "forever," or at least as long as we care to keep track of it. (It's kind of like "happily ever after"...that doesn't really mean "forever," either.)
The gun as object
Here's where I want to introduce a new complexity into the debate. I don't actually accept that the gun is "inanimate" in any meaningful sense.
Here, I'm going to rely somewhat heavily on a metaphysical understanding that differs from both Aristotle's and Newton's. This sense derives largely from the philosophical views of John Dewey, especially the "metaphysics" he set forth in his 1925 book, Experience and Nature. (I've written extensively about Dewey's metaphysics. If you're interested in looking at some of my writings on that subject, see here.)
|John Dewey, 1859-1952|
Dewey gradually lost his Christian faith, and drifted away from Hegel, seeking a more "naturalized" world-view that could be based on observable facts and experimentation. A huge and important part of Dewey's journey to a new metaphysics was his embrace of Aristotle, and the notion that things have proper "ends" or "functions" that determine how they behave. But Dewey wasn't satisfied that Aristotle's metaphysics effectively removed "supernatural" (non-observable) causes from nature, and so he moved past Aristotle, and constructed his own metaphysics without the kind of cosmological teloi that Aristotle posited.
The most important aspect of Dewey's metaphysics that distinguishes it from other viewpoints is that it is a metaphysics of experience, not of essence. Dewey didn't want to use his metaphysics to understand the underlying essence of nature, an allegedly pure metaphysics that would remove humans from our picture of reality and get to the things in themselves. Dewey believed that experience was the medium in which we, well, "experience" reality, and that experience had to be included in any description of the nature of nature. Things-in-themselves are unknown and unknowable; all we can know is that which we experience; and we experience things in experience, with qualities that are not necessarily of the things-in-themselves but of our interactions with things.
Dewey reconstructed the concept of an "object" away from the unknowable "thing in itself apart from human interactions with it" toward a view of entities as themselves constructed by human experiencers. (Yes, this is a form of constructivism, implying some of Dewey's educational beliefs, but I'm not going to get into that here.) When we encounter an entity (or "thing," although Dewey didn't constrain is metaphysics to only physical things) in experience, the "thing" doesn't just enter into our minds pure and unadulterated. Rather, it "enters" our minds through the complex web of expectations, prior experiences, assumptions, culture, biases, meanings, and habits that make up our understanding. Again, we experience things through our experience, and while we can try to get a sense of the thing that minimizes the psychological aspect of our experience of it (through science, largely), we have to work at understanding nature, and can never rid ourselves of the effects of our understandings on that which we are trying to understand.
(Some people speak of an inescapable "hermeneutic circle" in which our interpretations of events such as texts, or anything, are always shaped by our interpretations of our interpretations, in an endless loop.)
If I say "gun" in a conversation, and if you are someone who is literate in the English language, the word (either its written form or its auditory equivalent) will evoke in your mind an image of "gun," even if you have never actually seen a gun in person. Your image of the gun may be different from my image of the gun, so if I want to evoke a more specific image, I need to add some additional words, like: "semi-automatic assault rifle."
Similarly, if you encounter a gun or semi-automatic assault rifle in your personal experience, it will not enter into your experience as just a visual "thing" that can be easily detached from your experience or your understanding or your culture.
In other words, a "semi-automatic assault rifle," or "gun" is not limited in our minds to just the material from which it is made and is physical form. There may well be some entity "on the table" that is just metal and plastic and paint and ??? in a certain physical form, but that isn't what you experience. (And, I would argue, such a "thing" doesn't actually exist except in your imagination!)
Okay, hold on there a second, Dr. Cunningham!
Yes, I am claiming that the "common sense" notion of the gun on the table as "inanimate" is itself a figment of someone's imagination. The actual gun, the object of our experience, is fraught with a complex array of associations, implications and potentialities. The "object" is animated by a zillion and one interrelationship in our minds (and, in actual fact, in the world), and it cannot be detached from those interrelationships (except, perhaps, in our imaginations).
Let me go a step further. The gun on the table isn't just the physical amalgamation of different ingredients in a certain form. It has a history. It hasn't always been a "gun," and it hasn't always been on the table, and it's actually quite unlikely that it will remain on the table, untouched by human hands. It was actually manufactured at some point, to a set of specifications that were themselves developed over time. It didn't somehow come together "naturally." Someone decided to make it. Someone had a purpose in making it. Probably, the intention of the manufacturer wasn't to have it sit on a table for eternity. What was the intention of the manufacturer? I can't say for sure, but I bet you the cost of an AR-15 that part of the intention was to sell it to someone who wants it for some reason. Why would anyone want an AR-15? Well, there are many possible reasons. To shoot it? Probably. At what? Who knows? (I would wager the idea is to shoot it at something and that the goal isn't for that something to remain intact.) Or, maybe someone just wants to hang it on the wall and admire it. Okay. But they don't want to hang it on the wall because it's an inanimate chunk of metal. They want to hang it on the wall because of what it implies or suggests. It's a gun, after all. NOT a pressure cooker!
The gun on the table has a past, yes, but also it has a future. And the fact that it's a gun (and not, say, a used tissue) has considerable implications for what that future might be. Someone (hopefully, not a child or a deranged person) will inevitably see it, be motivated to touch it, move it, pick it up, take it home, get some bullets for it, and take it out to a field and fire it. Or, maybe someone will turn it into the authorities. No matter what happens, the gun invites interaction with humans who encounter it. This invitation is not solely in the minds of the person who encounters it! The invitation is built into the gun, along with the steel and whatever else.
In this way, the gun on the table isn't the same as a rock on a hillside, or a car in a driveway, or a "pressure cooker" in a kitchen cabinet. It exists because of the manufacturer's desire to make a profit, and this possibility of a profit exists because humans seem to want guns. The military, yes, and that's understandable. But in addition many American humans who have all kinds of associations in their minds with having a semi-automatic assault rifle. It's a symbol of power, freedom, autonomy, wealth. It's a tool with particular purposes.
But, quite essentially and inevitably, it has possibility. Potentiality. It can, potentially, kill an animal. Even a human.
And if it finds its way into the hands of a person who wants to kill people, for whatever reason, it empowers that person with a power and a possible future that the person didn't previously have. This power doesn't exist solely in the person who has the desire to kill. It exists in the gun. Yes, a person is required to fire it. (I don't think the gun can fire itself.) That person may be intentional about killing someone. Or that person might just be curious to see what it does when the trigger is pulled.
The image is cultural. It exists even in the minds of small children.
The person might be of sound mind (whatever that is) or might be certifiably insane. I'm not even going to get into the complexity of defining mental health or illness.
That's going to require another blog post.