Monday, February 25, 2013

Explaining Proximate Causation & Ultimate Causation

Some years ago I attended a NHS summer institute on biology and politics.  Larry Arnhart was a fellow at that event.  Roger Masters and Ron Perlman hosted the event.  At one point Roger said that he had given up trying to explain the distinction between proximate and ultimate causation to his undergraduate students.  They just didn’t get it. 
I have found a very simple way to explain the distinction, which I share now for the edification of my readers.  It goes like this:
My summer school class begins at 7:30 am, a very uncivilized moment in the day.  I ask my bleary eyed students why I got up at 6 am.  No mystery there.  The alarm clock went off.  That, I point out, is the proximate cause of my waking and reluctantly swinging my feet off the mattress. 
Okay.  So what is the ultimate cause?  After they blink their eyes for a few moments I exclaim “beer isn’t free!”  The light shines in. 

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