BITE-SIZE PHILOSOPHY (33) – How does Philosophy help analyze problems?

Rev José Mario O Mandía

Problem-solving is something we do everyday: at home, at work or in school, in church, in the social milieu in which we move. When a problem arises, we try to offer an explanation: why did it happen? Arguments might ensue because of conflicting positions. But if we listen more closely to the arguments, we may find that many of the reasons cited are compatible with one another. The only problem is that they are all branded as “causes”. This is where the difficulty at times lies. Because not all of the explanations or reasons offered are causes.

Here is where Philosophy can be of great help. Philosophy teaches us that there is difference between a principle, a cause, a condition, and an occasion. Let us start from the broadest of these concepts.

A principle, in Saint Thomas’ words, is “that from which something proceeds or arises in any way whatsoever” (S Th I q33 a1). For example, the starting line is the principle or beginning of a race track. Another example: the Catholic faith teaches us that in the Blessed Trinity, the Father is the principle of the Son, and both Father and Son act as a principle of the Holy Spirit. The Son proceeds from the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son.

A cause is a kind of principle. It is a principle which really and positively influences something, such that that thing (the effect) depends upon it (the cause) in a certain way. A cause affects the being of something. The carpenter is a cause of the chair, the parents are the cause of the child. The carpenter really affects the chair, because if the carpenter does not act, the chair will not be made. The parents really affect the being of the child, because without parents, a child cannot come to exist. When analyzing a problem, it is important to get to the cause or causes.

A condition is something required for a cause to produce its effect. In itself, it will not make something happen. For example, a classroom is a condition for learning to take place but having a classroom does not necessarily mean a student is sure to learn once he goes into one. Or low wages are a condition for discontent and poor productivity.

Some conditions are conditions sine qua non: they are absolutely needed for causality to be exercised, and without them, the cause cannot act. For example, a person needs to repent before he can receive forgiveness. Why? Because to repent implies admitting that one has offended another. Only when one admits this fact and is sorry for it, can he receive forgiveness. A person who does not admit sin does not see the need for forgiveness.

An occasion is something which favors the action of a free cause. For example, a dinner party is an occasion for someone to get drunk. It is not the party that causes him to get drunk: many other people in the party will remain sober afterwards. Neither is the party a condition to get drunk, because he can get drunk by himself at home.

Many Christians know that they are called to be holy, but the great majority mistakenly think that they can only do this in some exceptional occasions. In fact, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Joseph show us that every single moment or circumstance in our everyday life is an occasion for the practice of the virtues, an opportunity to be holy.

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