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The WHYS Way to Understand Causes

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 11, No. 1.


Editor’s note: The following are chapters 3, 4, and 5 of Betsy Speicher’s book The WHYS Way to Success and Happiness (CreateSpace, 2015). The later chapters (6–15) apply causal aasoning to various pursuits, from understanding emotions, to improving memory, to persuading people, to raising children. Because the excerpts below are from a published book, they have not been edited by TOS. The WHYS Way is available in Kindle, paperback, and Audible formats through

What Are Causes?

Causes Are Everywhere

Whenever you ask “Why?” you’re looking for a cause. If you want to know why your friend is late, it means you’re looking for whatever caused him to not show up on time. Maybe he was stuck in traffic, lost track of time, forgot the event, etc.

Whenever you use the word “because,” whatever follows that word is a causal explanation as to why something happened. If someone says “I bought my Corvette at Heartland Chevrolet because they gave me the best price,” it means that the price was what caused him to purchase the car at that dealership.

If you ask “How?” you’re also seeking a cause. “How?” means “What will cause this to happen?” and the answer to a “How?” question is always a cause.

For example, there’s the old joke about a young man who asks an elderly man for directions: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The old man replies “Practice! Practice!” The answer the young man was expecting and the one he got were causal. He wanted routing directions that would cause him to arrive at Carnegie Hall and the old man gave him advice that would cause him to be good enough to perform there.

If you think about it, causes are implicit in every statement you make and every sentence you utter. A sentence is about something—that’s the subject of the sentence—and what that something is or does—which is the predicate of the sentence. Contained in the sentence is the idea that there’s something about the subject that causes the predicate.

The statement “Jerry’s car wouldn’t start” means that there was something about Jerry’s car (the subject) that caused it not to start (the predicate)—such as, perhaps, a dead battery. The generalization “All men are mortal” contains the idea that there is something about all men (the subject) that causes them to be mortal (the predicate).

Thus, if you want to understand the relationship between something (the subject) and what it is or does (the predicate), you need to understand cause and effect. If you want to prove or, sometimes, just make sense out of a statement, you need to be aware of causes.

What Causes Really Are

We’ve seen that causes may not be just one thing happening before another or things that always go together or actions and reactions, so what are they?

Set your old assumptions aside for a while and let’s look at causality in a new way. Instead of connections and reactions, The WHYS Way focuses on three things:

(1) What you want to know and do

(2) The things you want to understand and use

(3) The characteristics of things

Those are your keys to understanding causes.

An Elementary Example

Imagine that we have a red wooden ball that’s about three inches in diameter. Why does it roll when you push it? Why does it fit inside a square box that’s four inches on each side? Why does it float on water? Why does it remind you of an apple?

Observe all the effects involving the little red ball: rolling, fitting, floating, etc. Each result is caused by the same object, but they’re all different effects. Why is that? Let’s answer the “Whys?” above and see.

The ball rolls because it’s round. If it were shaped like a cube, it wouldn’t. It fits inside the box because it’s three inches in diameter. If the ball were five inches, all other things being equal, it wouldn’t fit inside a four-inch box. It floats because it’s made of wood. A similar cast-iron ball would sink. It reminds you of an apple because it has the same visual characteristics—the same color, general shape, and size—as an apple.

Those are the specific characteristics of that ball—something different in each case—that account for and cause each particular effect. The ball rolls because it’s round, but not because it’s red. The size is important for fitting in the bigger box or making you think of an apple, but not for explaining why it floats.

For each specific effect, there is something about the ball that causes that effect.

What is true of the ball applies to all cause-and-effect relationships. There is always:

1. A thing. There is always something that acts or changes. In our example, the thing that acts or changes is the ball. It acts by rolling or floating or changing its position from outside to inside the box or by changing your thoughts from not thinking of an apple to thinking of an apple.

2. Its causal characteristics. There is always something about that thing that makes it or allows it to act or change. In our ball example, depending on the particular effect we want to explain, it might be the shape of the ball, what it’s made of, its size, its color, etc. A causal characteristic might be anything about a thing—any property or characteristic of that thing—which it must have in order to produce a specific effect.

(To keep it simple, from here on we will use the word “Purpose,” with a capital “P,” whenever we mean a purpose for knowing or what it is that you want to know or do. Likewise, we will use “Thing” to refer to the thing that acts or changes, and “Characteristic” for a causal characteristic.)

In principle: The cause of any given effect is the characteristics of things.

That’s the basic idea behind causes and, as we shall see, it’s The WHYS Way’s answer to every “Why?” or “How?” question. Why does the ball roll? Because it’s a round (Characteristic) object (Thing). How does it float? It (the Thing) is made of wood (Characteristic).

If you want to know what the cause of something is, focus on the Characteristics of the Things that act or change. Ask, “What Characteristics of this Thing are the cause of this effect?”

Here are some more causes explained in terms of Things and Characteristics:

Thing—The TV

Characteristics—It needs an external source of power and it’s not plugged in.

Effect—When you turn the TV on, you don’t get any sound or picture.

Thing—A tornado

Characteristics—It had extremely strong winds and it touched down on Third Street.

Effect—Homes were destroyed on Third Street.

Thing—A traveler.

Characteristics—She went on a Caribbean cruise and paid for it with her credit card.

Effect—She maxed out her credit card.

That’s all there is to it. Just look at what things are and what they do. Understanding causes is simply a matter of identifying which things are acting, changing, or being explained—the Things—and which of their attributes and properties—their Characteristics—account for their actions, changes, or condition.


While the Thing-Characteristic view of causes is a very simple idea, some might say it’s too simple. Let’s look at their objections and how to answer them. . . .

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