What is Causal Closure?

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The Reason for Writing This Article

In a recent conversation, someone asked me: “Is the universe causally closed?” For a moment I was stumped because I realized that what he is really asking is whether God intervenes in the universe. If God intervenes in the universe, then the universe is not causally closed because God is supposedly outside the universe. If He doesn’t intervene in the universe, the universe must be governed solely by what is within the universe, and it would be causally closed.

I was trying to get this clarified by asking the questioner the meaning of “causally closed”, but I did not get a pointed answer. Meanwhile, I remembered the invocation from Iśopaniśad: “That is complete and this is complete. The complete produces the complete. After producing the complete from the complete, the balance is complete”. Based on this I responded: “Yes, the universe is causally closed”. I’m quite certain that the listener would have taken this to mean that “God does not intervene in the universe”, so I thought I should clarify this.

The Scope of Causal Closure

Let’s begin by expanding the scope of closure—each individual person is causally closed. This means that everything happening to me is caused by me, and me alone. If I’m enjoying in a certain way, both the enjoyment and the specific way in which I’m enjoying are caused by my past actions—the opportunity to enjoy is due to karma, the ability for a specific kind of experience is due to chitta, and the desire to use the ability and opportunity to enjoy is due to guna. Similarly, if I’m suffering in some way, both the suffering and the specific way in which I’m suffering are caused by my past actions—the circumstance of suffering is due to karma, the ability to have a specific type of suffering is due to chitta, and the fact that I consider it suffering is due to guna.

Guna, karma, and chitta divide into the 24 categories of Sāñkhya creating various types of bodies, sense perceptions, senses, minds, intellects, egos, and moral senses. To illustrate this point with an example, we can consider the gross body. Due to guna, my body has certain proclivities—e.g., it likes or dislikes hot, cold, and windy climates. Due to chitta, my body has a certain sensitivity toward the hot, cold, or windy climates. And due to karma, I am put into a hot, cold, or windy climate by which my body suffers or enjoys, subject to my like or dislike (guna), and the sensitivity toward the climate (chitta).

Causal Closure and the Unconscious

The guna, karma, and chitta together constitute the unconscious, but we cannot perceive these three individually. Only their combinations can be perceived. This is true of the three aspects of the soul—sat, chit, and ānanda—too. The pleasure or pain we experience is associated with some sense by bringing them into a relationship with their objects. That relationship produces a sensation, and that sensation creates the feeling of pain or pleasure. The relationship is established either due to my desires and aversions or the consequences of past actions.

Each person’s unconscious determines their experience, leading to causal closure. The collective unconscious of all the persons in a society is the society’s unconscious which determines all that occurs in society. The collective unconscious of all the societies in a planet constitutes a planet’s unconscious, which determines all that happens in the planet. Finally, the collective unconscious of all the planets in a universe determines all that happens in a universe. Everything from a person, to a society, planet, and universe is causally closed. This is not difficult to see if everything from an individual person to a society, planet, and the entire universe is treated as an individual person.

Eternity and Responsibility

The invocation from Iśopaniśad means—”A causally closed person produces many causally closed persons”. There is a Supreme Person who produced His children out of His choice, and He is responsible for those choices. Those children can also choose and be responsible for their choices. If they make bad choices, then they own the consequences, but the parent also has to live with the consequences of His choices—creating children with the capacity to choose. The parent cannot take away their choices, even if they choose badly. He has to endure the fact that He created them with choice. Hence, the capacity of the children to choose is eternal due to God’s responsibility for His choices.

The equivalence between eternity and responsibility is often missed, so it is worth dwelling on it. There is no way to rationally explain and justify why some people are born poor or rich, beautiful or ugly, intelligent or dumb, capable or incapable, healthy or sick, other than to say that these differences are due to their past actions. Similarly, there is no responsibility for one’s choices if one commits immoral acts in this life but evades punishment, and there is no subsequent life where he has to face the consequences of his actions.

We cannot talk about responsibility without eternity and eternity without responsibility. The concept of karma and rebirth is synonymous with the eternity of the soul. If someone doesn’t believe in the eternity of the soul, then they will also not believe in responsibility for their choices. This is why when a society embraces materialism, it first rejects the eternity of the soul and then becomes immoral because they think that if they can evade the consequences of their actions in this life then they have evaded them permanently.

Temporality and Immorality

This point is abundantly illustrated in Cārvāka’s materialism when he says: “As long as you live, you shall live happily; take out loans and drink ghee; after all, once the body has been burnt, where is the question of coming back?” The implication is that you don’t have to repay your liabilities in your next life, which is one of the many examples of immoral behavior. Similarly, some countries accumulate debt to be repaid by future generations because John Maynard Keynes, a famous economist, convinced them that “This long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run, we are all dead.” Keynesian economics is identical to Cārvāka’s materialism in this sense.

The idea that life ends with death is the idea that we can escape responsibility for our actions. Hence, when we talk about the soul’s eternity, we should call it moral responsibility. Materialists love to say that a materialist foundation for morality is possible but they have never developed such a foundation and their actions have been immoral. So, the rational foundation for morality is absent and the empirical evidence is immoral. This is because there is no responsibility without eternity and no eternity without responsibility.

The connection between eternity and responsibility has been severed in many present religions. Morality based on universal principles of truthfulness, kindness, charity, sacrifice, austerity, renunciation, cleanliness, etc. has been replaced by localized ethical systems that apply to a socio-political-ethnic group alone. For example, “thou shalt not kill” only means that you should not kill others in your socio-political-ethnic group. Killing people from other socio-political-ethnic groups is ethical (even if it seems immoral). And people who follow such ethical (but immoral) systems of religion supposedly attain eternal life in heaven because they do not bear responsibility for their actions.

Everything is Causally Closed

The separation between eternity and responsibility is false; they are identical concepts, which is why “eternal life” can be substituted with “responsible life”. Responsibility also creates causal closure. God is causally closed because He is responsible for His choices. Each person produced from God is causally closed because they are responsible for their choices. God is responsible for the system of responsibility for His children because otherwise, His choices would be irresponsible. God’s responsibility for creating children ends with a system of ensuring responsibility because He has made a choice and acted responsibly rather than choosing to create without any responsibility.

Thus, everything from the Supreme Person down to the smallest living entity—i.e., the atom—is causally closed because their experiences are the byproduct of their choices and their responsibilities, as they are co-created. There is no choice without responsibility and no responsibility without choice.

Space and Time of Experience

The unconscious covering the soul and its mixing by time produces the content of experience. That content restrains choices. The three aspects of the unconscious are the root of a three-dimensional space from which springs the diversity of experiences—like a tree emerges from a root—when these dimensions are mixed by time. All experience is thus a position in a space (constructed from chitta, guna, and karma) that changes with time. The universal space is hierarchically subdivided into universes, planetary systems, planets, and places within them, and based on the type of responsibility intended for a specific duration of time, the soul obtains a short-lived life (in a certain body, society, and planet) to reap the responsibilities for what it has sown. As the soul makes new choices while enduring these responsibilities, the unconscious evolves, and in due course of time, the soul is moved to a new short-lived life (in a certain body, society, planet, and universe).

Therefore, the soul is a free individual but covered by an unconscious because choice comes with responsibility. This responsibility is nothing more that the soul’s temporally changing position in a space of worldly experiences. We can think of the soul as a particle that moves in space and time. This evolution is not totally deterministic because the soul can choose differently to create a new covering of responsibility. However, it is not totally free either because every choice lawfully entails a different kind of covering of responsibility.

Objections to Causal Closure

Someone can say: Each person is not causally closed because they have to face responsibility, and that would be true. Someone can say: That responsibility is converted into an experience by time, which is not under each person’s control, and that would also be true. Since material space and time are partial aspects of God, therefore, someone can say that God intervenes in the soul’s life, and that would also be true. Finally, someone can say: Since God intervenes in everyone’s lives, therefore, He is intervening in the working universe, and hence, the universe is not causally closed, and that too would be true.

But there is a false assumption embedded in such objections—that a universe governed by mathematical equations is causally closed. This assumption is false because we cannot find a universal computer that receives the current state information of all material particles, computes the mathematical equations governing their next state, and then delivers the results of computations to each particle in the universe.

Even if we postulate such a ginormous computer, its working must be governed by an even bigger computer computing the equations governing the computer. In the logical limit, infinite computers computing the equations for the next computer are required, for a single universe to be governed by mathematical laws. Each of these infinite computers must be powered by increasing amounts of energy. Hence, a universe of finite energy must spend infinite energy in computing its mathematical laws.

To terminate this infinitely cascading hierarchy of computers, there must be a self-started, self-driven, self-governed, perpetually moving computer. No such computer is mathematically conceivable. Hence, those who talk about causal closure—with the assumption that a mathematically governed universe is causally closed—don’t have causal closure because their assumption is not causally closed and it is impossible to causally close that assumption since it requires an infinite cascade of computers and infinite energy to run them.

Self-Perpetuating Causal Closure

The system of possibility, choice, and responsibility is such a self-computing system because every choice automatically produces a responsibility, which expands or constrains the possibilities for future choices. M. C. Escher conceived of a self-computing system as two hands that draw each other. We can extend this to three hands—possibility, choice, and responsibility—that circularly draw each other. This is a causally closed system in which the choice of a possibility produces a responsibility, which is then activated by time to change the possibility, leading to new choices and responsibilities.

God is involved in this causally closed system as the guarantor of responsibility for every choice. If someone considers this a problem, they can try to construct an alternative causally closed universe, and based on the above problem of infinite cascading, we can confidently say that such a causally closed universe would never be constructed. The system of possibility, choice, and responsibility is necessary because no other system of causal closure is feasible. It is already sufficient as a causally closed system. Hence, the system of possibility, choice, and responsibility is both necessary and sufficient.

Of course, if someone has a problem with responsibility, then they can live alone self-satisfied where their choices are limited to one alternative—the self (called Brahman). It is a choice that puts an end to all other choices. However, even that choice is not without responsibility, because we can do whatever we want to ourselves, and we would still be responsible for those choices.

Science, Religion, and Causal Closure

Thus, everything in science and religion can be summarized in one sentence: “All laws are the laws of choice and responsibility”. The problems in science and religion begin with the desire for choice without responsibility since nobody wants responsibilities without a choice. People envision a society, religion, and science in which they have rights, freedoms, and entitlements without any responsibility. If they get these rights, freedoms, and entitlements, then they call these naturally bequeathed upon them by God. But if they don’t get these rights, freedoms, and entitlements due to the responsibilities enforced as effects of previous choices, then they blame God or other people.

Therefore, every conversation on religion, science, or society must be based on the simple principle of possibility, choice, and responsibility. Unfortunately, this is not how most religions, societies, and sciences operate. Everyone wants the freedom to experiment and speculate, with all the rights reserved to change those experiments and speculations over time, without any sense of responsibility. This conception of science, religion, and society is the antithesis of reality. If you make bad choices, then you will be held responsible. People generally call this the “law of karma” but it is much more than that (because, as we have discussed, apart from karma there is also guna and chitta).

Morality and Religion

Many people want to discuss the nature of the soul and God without discussing possibility, choice, and responsibility. They speculate and experiment, and reserve the right to change those speculations and experiments over time. They don’t realize that their actions are also subject to responsibilities. If you mislead someone with attractive false ideas, you will be misled by someone else’s attractive false ideas. The misleading ideas will match what you find attractive, and the result will be your misdirection. Hence, the principles of possibility, choice, and responsibility are more important than any ideology about soul, God, and salvation.

This emphasis on choice and responsibility is evidenced in that Buddhism and Jainism—which grew in India—did not reject the “law of karma” even when they rejected the soul and God. They have always preferred to treat it as a natural law although they cannot explain how that law is enforced (just like mathematical laws of science). They envision salvation as something that puts an end to the cycle of birth and death, enjoyment and suffering, as entailed by the “law of karma” instead of their ascent into an eternal spiritual world.

Factually, this kind of responsible atheism is better than the theism that recklessly speculates on the nature of matter, soul, and God without responsibility. When people make it a habit to experiment and speculate on the nature of matter, soul, and God, then the number of deceptions multiplies exponentially because every cheater has to be cheated by another cheater in a new way. Ignorance of the principle of possibility, choice, and responsibility thus leads not just to immorality but also to a dramatic increase in falsehoods.

Religion Begins in Responsibility

When the number of cheaters and cheated increases exponentially, then it is impossible to decide what the truth is because everyone is experimenting and speculating on the truth without any idea about the future that awaits them. This irresponsible behavior can only be curtailed by teaching people about the principle of possibility, choice, and responsibility.

Reckless experiments and speculations may hurt others, but they are equally harmful to the person who indulges in them or justifies them because: (a) every liar believes in his lies, and (b) every liar will be deceived in the future, reinforcing his tendency to cheat.

We cannot blame anyone else for this deception because of causal closure. Everything that is happening to anyone—good or bad—is entirely the result of their previous choices. Whatever choices people are making right now will be reciprocated in kind in the future. So, everyone can choose, but we must choose choose wisely knowing that it will be reciprocated.

Causal closure is “what goes around comes around”. It is closed-loop causality. There is something external to each person’s choice that closes the loop of responsibility. We can study the scientific principles of how that loop is closed, or how choices create a responsibility that changes our experiences. Vedic dharma is nothing more than closed-loop causality or causal closure. It is augmented by the discussion of various kinds of causally closed-loop realities called “complete” and “self-sufficient” worlds. These worlds have sprung from the complete principle of possibility, choice, and responsibility. They hold each person accountable.

Three Aspects of Absolute Truth

Before we get lost in the study of different kinds of complete and self-sufficient worlds, we should know the principle from which they have sprung—i.e., the causally complete principle of possibility, choice, and responsibility. Many complete worlds have sprung from one complete principle. These worlds are just examples, illustrations, or instantiations of the complete principle of possibility, choice, and responsibility. That principle is complete and this world is complete. The complete principle produces a complete world. After producing the complete world, the complete principle remains complete. Completeness is responsibility of choice.

That principle is the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Truth, and the Supreme Person. We may call Him by many names. Since He is the cause of all the words, all the names will correctly describe some aspect of His persona. But we can also discuss His nature just by discussing the principle of possibility, choice, and responsibility that He embodies. In Vedic texts, this principle is called sac-cid-ānanda-vigraha; sat is responsibility, cit is possibility, ānanda is choice, and vigraha is the complete form of these principles. The meaning of complete form is that this principle is realized in many ways in different self-sufficient worlds. They are all parts of the complete form and produced from that form. When infinite worlds can be summarized in three words, then we should use those words to understand everything. Discussing these words is talking about the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Truth, and the Supreme Person.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "What is Causal Closure?," in Shabda Journal, November 13, 2022, https://journal.shabda.co/2022/11/13/what-is-causal-closure/.