A caused B caused C caused D caused etc. etc.

I’ve started reading a classic Civil War study, Why the South Lost the Civil War.  Note, dear reader, that the title is posed as a statement, as in, “this is why the South lost.”  However, the authors would agree that the book is as much a study of what others have explained as the reason (or reasons) of why the South lost than it is the opinion of the authors of why the war ended as it did.

Why did the South lose the Civil War? “One knows the answer is there, somewhere – the Confederacy did not collapse without reason,” the authors state.  We may not know the answer, then, but it is out there, the authors would have us believe.  Walter Benjamin, a man commonly regarded by men much smarter than myself as a very smart man indeed, had this to say about questions and answers:

“To every question there is only one true answer which with sufficient assiduity can be infallibly discovered, and this applies no less to questions of ethics or politics, of personal and social life, than to the problems of physics and mathematics.”

So not just the authors of a silly Civil War book, but no less an authority than the mighty Walter Benjamin, believe there are answers to our questions, even if we don’t know them.  Let us here bring up a useful distinction when it comes to studying the world.  There are the issues of the hard sciences, and there are the issues of the social sciences.  It is one thing to ask, “If you throw an object of these dimensions in such a space with these physical laws, when will it hit the ground?” and another thing to ask “Why did the South lose the Civil War?”  (Please note, there are some who think the conception of “hard” sciences as rigid, logical, precise, and existing independent of ours minds is a cultural myth).

Myth or not, there indeed seems like there is a difference between asking what the sum of two numbers is and why a war happened or why it was lost.  Indeed, what could the answer to the question, Why Did the South Lose the War, even look like?  Would it be a 5 paragraph essay?  Would it be a list?  Just what would have to be said to know with certainty why the war turned out the way it did?  It seems like even if we could see the answer we wouldn’t know it.

We assume, of course, that the answer would take some sort of form outlined in the title of this post, a form in which causal factors are set up, in which a chain of events occurs.  Sometimes these types of chains seem relatively simple.  For instance, let me describe a recent “incident” from my job.  I work at a career services office at a university.  We recently encouraged students to purchase business cards from the university printing services shop.  They cost $50 for 250 cards.  It was later brought to our attention that a certain office at the university was offering a deal to all students so that they could purchase 250 cards (still from the same printing services shop) for only $25.  When we found out, we notified students that they could purchase cards at a discounted rate through this other office.  There were several students who already purchased the cards for $50 and they were not happy.

So let’s pose a question:  Why were some university students unhappy about paying $50 for 250 business cards?  The answer doesn’t seem too complicated, and the answer seems like common sense and indeed just plain right.  Yet, again, how could any explanation of why the South lost the war ever seem so plain and so undoubtedly correct?

Of course, we could get even more skeptical and question even the truth of the “simple” scenario in which a bunch of university students are pissed off about overpaying for business cards.  For there are some who have said there is no such thing as knowledge of causes.  We simply observe tendencies between two events occurring one after another.  Imagine someone playing pool and hitting a cue ball into another ball, which then goes into the pocket.  We would say the cue ball hitting the second ball caused it to slide into the pocket.  Yet what is this word cause?  Is it a distinct power or relationship in nature?  Is it something that exists in the universe?  Or is it just a word, an invisible cloud, that we use to reference how certain phenomena seem to appear one after the other in most cases?

I suppose the short and easy way to sum all of this up is that there may be no way to state with certainty why the South lost the Civil War.  Or perhaps there is, but it will take huge advances in our understanding of the universe, of the relationship between physical and psychological/social phenomenon, before such an answer can be formulated.

I will close by paraphrasing a great philosopher. Imagine a stone falling through the air that all of a sudden can think and comes up with all sorts of answers about why it is falling at the speed and direction in which it’s falling.  We would know (or would we?) that there were precise laws that determined the stone’s path, despite any of the stone’s cute imaginings.  And so it may be with the Civil War.  Discussion of lack of resources, poor leadership, lack of will, etc., may have nothing to do with why it really happened.  Or at least not in the way we might imagine.

Yes, my friends, perhaps the Civil War was just a stone falling from the sky.

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1 Response to A caused B caused C caused D caused etc. etc.

  1. Molly says:

    A magnificent conclusion to a ridiculous argument. Well done.

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