Mark Blasini

Concepts Toolbox



An alternative to determinism. Where determinism describes phenomena by examining prior "causes," conditionalism describes the underlying elements (conditions) that allow for the phenomena to occur.

For example, consider Newton's laws of motion, which are described by Newton as such:

  1. Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.
  2. The change of motion of an object is proportional to the force impressed; and is made in the direction of the straight line in which the force is impressed.
  3. To every action, there is always opposed an equal reaction; or, the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.
Under a conditionalist view, we can re-describe the laws as such:
  1. A body's state of motion is an expression of the relationship between the body and the space in which it exists - that is, in which it occupies a specific position over time. We can call this relationship velocity.
  2. A change in velocity signifies a change in the body's state of motion. We can call this change in velocity acceleration.
  3. Every body expresses a resistance to acceleration. We can call this resistance inertia.
  4. The relationship between acceleration and inertia - that is, between a body's change in motion and its resistance to this change - is inversely proportional. We can call the expression or occurrence of this relationship force.
  5. The amount of acceleration is proportional to the strength of force. Thus, the stronger the force, the higher the acceleration; the weaker the force, the lower the acceleration.
  6. Every relationship between two bodies always expresses a mutual force that is both equal in strength and opposite in direction. We can call the expression or occurrence of this mutual force action or interaction. That is to say, whenever the relationship of acceleration and inertia for one body is equivalent in strength and opposite in direction to the relationship of acceleration and inertia for another body, we can say there is action or interaction between the two bodies.
This re-wording does not seek to "explain" phenomena in terms of underlying causes; there is no recourse to assuming that people understand what is meant by "force" or "action" or "compel" or "impress," all of which are used as synonyms for each other and thus provide no real means to understanding the concept.

Rather, the description only seeks to define the conditions that allow the concepts (velocity, acceleration, inertia, force, action/interaction) to be established and understood. As a result, it avoids the trap of circular synonymity that is characteristic of determinism in general.

At the same time, the description doesn't simply avoid speaking of causes; rather, it provides a more accurate understanding of what is actually going on.

In describing force, for example, as the expression or occurrence of the relationship between acceleration and inertia, we understand force not as the "cause" for changes in motion, but as their form of expression. A body's motion does not change because a force "compels" it to; rather, the change in motion is simply an expression of the mutual force, that is, interaction, between one body and another, in much the same way as a flash of lightning is not "compelled" or "impressed upon" by lightning to flash, but is simply an expression of it.

Following from this, in viewing matters from a conditionalist perspective, there are two postulates that must constantly be held:

  1. When the conditions for a phenomena to occur are present, the phenomena will occur.
  2. Every phenomena can be conceived as an expression of its underlying conditions.
tags: philosophy; science