Stop me if you have heard this one before. There’s this shy, beautiful girl in another class at school. She used to be in a different club, but she switched to yours. She’s kind and funny, if a little clumsy, and you can sense in her fears and hopes, immaturity and the sparks of a good heart and a good mind. You have helped her out once or twice. Or you tried to at least.
One day, the two of you are randomly assigned to walk the city together as part of the club’s activities. The mood is calm, and the cherry trees are blossoming. Near the river, she musters up her courage and, turning to look at you, says: “I have something to tell you”. She breathes in deeply. “I came from the future!”
After that, she tells you that time travel simply entails moving in a 4-dimensional way through a collection of 3D stills. Think of it as somehow diving through a stack of personal photos. The deeper you go, the further you travel back in time.
Not the cause you would have ascribed to these effects, perhaps? Well, this is the Haruhi franchise, my friend! Following the wise advice once given to Romeo, we’ll seek comfort in adversity’s sweet milk— philosophy—and continue our adventures with Koizumi and St. Thomas Aquinas. Let’s uncover the true causes!
Time Travel Timequake Theory
In Mikuru Asahina’s time travel explanation, the stills would be “predetermined events”, space-time scenarios in our Universe. Time travelers like her can only affect things within these events, and only to a point. The timeline is stubborn.
But there are also “timequakes”.
Sometimes, something arises that starts affecting the whole timeline, causing a myriad of effects here and there. A new status quo appears. The people of the future keep an eye on these timequakes, because they want to preserve their own existence and position. They have noticed a big one playing out right now.
This timequake, the most powerful one ever, is a person. A schoolgirl. Haruhi Suzumiya.
The Brigade’s acting philosopher, Itsuki Koizumi (light novel version), will gladly explain how timequake action works. Let’s call a certain timeline 3D still “X”. After being modified by Haruhi’s timequake action, this timeline would then be called “X*” as it branches off.
There is no X* without an original X. The original version, though, does not disappear at once when the new X* version is initiated. Instead, it becomes “superimposed” while the old data is being overwritten with new data. The remains of X run for a while, until X* becomes the new X. This persistence, however, is suggestive, and so we’ll return to it later.
In short, it is a Back to the Future scenario, in contrast to the Prisoner-of-Azkaban-gyroscope scenario of “normal” time travel. Asahina may be able to develop things in the still, but Haruhi can inject something wholly new into it.
Koizumi has his suspicions about Asahina. To what extent is she acting merely to bring about certain future effects unknown to the rest? Though he later retracts it, at one point he even suggests that she may be feigning helplessness in order to control Haruhi through Kyon.
Nevertheless, Asahina and Koizumi often work together. After all, they both know that the effects in this or that absurd X* situation can only be reverted by uncovering their causes in time X before the X* version is consolidated. They have such an opportunity here because, pretty often, these causes are still at work.
This gives the show a very unique way of guiding you to its insights. You see, Haruhi founded her Brigade to investigate the mysteries of the Universe, and this is precisely what its members do. Theirs is an Evangelion-era romantic comedy, a philosophical show, a parody, and pretty often… a mystery story.
Remote Island Syndrome
To understand how timequake action works, we need a few detective tools. The show understands this, so early on we have the “Remote Island Syndrome” arc, where we see the characters solving a whodunit, a classic murder mystery in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes. Who caused, ahem, this death?
Before we can solve the mystery though, there’s a more fundamental question we must address: what is a cause? According to the Thomistic tradition, it would be a conditio sine qua non, an element such that, were it to be removed from the equation (be it in the past, present, or future), it would make some other element disappear (and also, I’m told, a pretty great episode of Battlestar Galactica). In other words, the X needed for a situation or state of being X*.
And how do we know what the true cause of something is? We (mild spoilers for the arc) see it in a cave, as it rains and our protagonists go back and forth, talking and thinking. Later, Koizumi and Kyon continue their deductions in the boy’s room in a more, ahem, Higurashi–esque way. But the method remains the same.
One of them will make a hypothesis, which is then animated in blurry live-action as they imagine it playing out. If some of the effects disappear in this hypothesis (say, a certain guy should end up facing the floor, but he is facing up), then they haven’t found the true X.
Our team knows that, in order to be a true cause, X must have enough explanatory power in itself to account for X*. That may happen in a deterministic way: the cause is always linked to this effect. It may also happen in a non-deterministic way if the same cause could give way to a variety of effects, and it gives way to this one. For example, Haruhi’s unpredictable ideas depend on Haruhi’s mind.
But some causes are more… consequential than others. Not all of them are in the past, still as pictures. Some are humming and smiling right now, their heads full of trouble.
Let’s take a little thing, Haruhi’s ponytail for example, and distinguish the various kinds of X on which it depends. Because causation itself, as a whole, is a big mystery. One that needs a map. And then, a very specific sort of X.
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Apocalypses and Infinite Loops
When I say “First Cause”, you may be forgiven for thinking that I’m going to talk about the Big Bang, or about the cause of the first beings that existed in this Universe. That’s not the case. St. Thomas’ Second Way focuses on a smaller X*. It doesn’t take as its starting point the question of why the entire Universe exists, just the relatively more modest one of why any one thing causes any other thing at all.
As Kyon can tell you, our world is pretty complex. Causes, defined as conditions, are nigh-infinite and come in all shapes and sizes. We can point first to how some things cause others, to see how we can account for the process in general. This will be our map.
According to Aristotle, Material causes account for the composition of things: Haruhi’s ponytail is materially caused by her hair, and perhaps some hair products. Formal causes account for their order: the hair is tied up high at the back of the head so that it hangs.
Final causes, in turn, account for the inner direction of something. A being or order that is partly realized would not exist without the final result it tends to. I’ll, ahem, let you guess that one in this case.
And lastly, Efficient causes account for the agents: the beings in situation X whose action or interaction results in situation X*. This would be Haruhi, choosing her own hairstyle this morning, an orange ribbon, the Earth with its gravity, the idea being on Haruhi’s mind, her parents giving her life, etc.
With efficient causes though, we need to make one more distinction that is relevant both for the mystery we are exploring—what causes causation?—and consequently, for the various mysteries of the show, timequake-related and otherwise. This is because all causality entails some amount of dependence, but not always to the same degree.
There are accidental causes: a specific being does something in another time that produces an effect in the present, with that effect now being independent of that actor. The cause doesn’t even need to be part of the observed 3D still anymore. It played its part in its history, and in explaining the origin, development, and specific features of a being in X*.
Haruhi’s parents, for example, are one of the efficient causes of her ponytail, but were they (spoilers for episode 5) to disappear from this Universe along with everybody else while blue giants of light walk around and the previous X turns into a strange and mysterious X*, the ponytail would still be there.
Not so without the little orange ribbon.
If it goes away, the ponytail disappears immediately. It’s an X that our X*, the ponytail, requires to be itself in the present, to keep its essence or way of being right now. And so there’s another kind of efficient cause: essential causes in the present. Beings whose existence is required for the present existence of another.
Timequakes are essential causes that remain constants in the timelines they have affected. If, say, Haruhi didn’t have a certain interest in a certain guy right now, they wouldn’t be alone in a closed space. If she wasn’t giving up on her daily life, it would still be there. When she is given hope, X* disappears like a dream, and the usual scenery is back. Plus a ponytail.
Essential causes are beings that act as timequake-like causes, while accidental causes are beings that act as time-traveller-like causes. The second kind accounts for the story of something; the first, for the fact that it exists right now in such a way that it may sustain other things in one or more of the four ways.
Even in a hypothetically infinite or infinite-loop Universe, which may allow us to dispense with accidental causes, the orange ribbons must be holding the hairstyles in place, for they are essentially incomplete and dependent realities. Causation, as a category, goes beyond time, because it has to do with “being”, and not only with “happening”.
And the culprit is…
The power of Haruhi’s time travelers to cause is derived from and conditioned by nature. Their kind of causation cannot be the only kind of causation, because it is reactive to timequake causation. But that is not self-sustaining either. Timequakes, like earthquakes, have an origin under the surface.
Haruhi fears a monotone world where things may just unfold forever. But her world changes. She knows that nothing can cause itself to happen, for nothing can be logically prior to itself. Thus, she gets the idea that there must be operators, agents and culprits at work behind the reality that she sees.
Similarly, we see causes of all four sorts at work, but those beings are themselves dependent on their essential causes, their own conditions of existence. The chain of essential causes, though, cannot be infinite, for infinity is without beginning or end: it wouldn’t reach this last step, which we are seeing.
An Uncaused Cause is needed to explain all the rest. And none of the causes we see around us even qualifies as a suspect. That’s because the beings and realities we see causing things are themselves limited and dependent in terms of causal spontaneity, or “explanatory power”.
Haruhi’s ribbon efficiently causes her ponytail, but the nature of air, of Space, of the Earth, and a myriad other conditio sine qua non beings are in turn making it possible for the ribbon to do so. A Universe consisting only of an orange hair ribbon and the things that depend on it would indeed be a Universe in which nothing happens. Time loops and infinite time chains wouldn’t add anything to such a place.
Our own Universe, understood as a total system, cannot be itself our culprit either. But why not? There are so many beings in our world, so couldn’t everything find causal support in something else? The reason is that everything would be reacting without any source of causal spontaneity. This is a causal version of the impossible perpetual motion machine. Like those, it would be still.
Okay, wait a minute. Hasn’t modern physics something to say about this?
Sure! It gives us certain constants or laws that will always apply if certain conditions are being fulfilled. Well, why does causal power need a cause, we may ask in Kyonesque frustration? Couldn’t it just be a “brute fact”? Or rather, why assume that causality even exists, rather than mere correlation?
The puzzling nature of quantum physics is sometimes used to argue that point, but this is a misunderstanding (as David McGraw notes). Causality, as St. Thomas understands it, need not be deterministic, nor is it dependent on time. There’s nothing that prevents, say, a vacuum from being a cause. A vacuum is not nothingness, but rather a physical object with its own order, properties, and… conditions.
As for “brute facts”, causation being an illusion, and beings not existing separately from one another and other alternatives: you’re free to believe that and not your lying eyes, if you like. But for my part, I’m a realist.
If there’s at least one Uncaused Cause, though, a Cause of Causation, an Unconditioned Condition, a source of causal spontaneity, a timequake of all timequakes and a non-dependent essence; and if it is in operation right now, then the causal world makes sense.
You have St. Thomas’ formulation of the Second Way here.
Let’s try to paint a robot portrait of this Uncaused Cause, just like if we were to discover a laser superpower used in the name of justice, and from that, be able to work out that the agent is a combat waitress from the future with heterochromia. No? Ask Haruhi, not me. Well, anyway, what can we do with this definition?
Firstly, the cause will be one: singular. If there were two causes, then the difference between them would be something like “if such and such is the case, then we are in front of Uncaused Cause A; but if that is not so, but rather such and such is the case, then it’s Uncaused Cause B”. But this introduces a condition, and we know that the essence of this Uncaused Cause is not conditioned, so it has to be one.
Secondly, being unconditioned, its essence is logically unlimited and undivided. So, the Uncaused Cause is infinite and simple.
Thirdly, an unconditioned causal power is the same as omnipotency. Plus, the cause of all constants in being must be itself constant, so it’s also eternal. Also, as the cause of causality, it cannot depend on any existing being, so it’s transcendent as well. Fourthly, it causes things that are not material, such as laws that we can express mathematically, which can only happen if the Uncaused Cause itself is immaterial.
Pre-containing all its possible effects in an immaterial way, this cause would have abstract ideas and unity of being, and thus be intelligent. Causing things to happen in a non-conditioned way entails having a will. Having intelligence and will, the First Cause is personal. There is much more, but I’ll stop here.
As you see, this argument by itself would be enough to account for a unique, transcendent, simple, free, and all-powerful personal Being. God, in short. Surprise!
But how may we then conceive our relationship with our First Cause? That question goes beyond philosophy, and to answer it, we’ll go back to the beginning of this article, and talk about the characterization of Asahina, who’s uniquely suited to explore this notion from an existential point of view.
And that is because we actually get to know not one, but two Asahinas, connected by… causation.
The Cause and the Effect
The dreadful treatment of Asahina in the first episodes of the show is the cause I almost stopped watching it. Is justice ever done to her character? I think it is. At first, we see her aimless and vulnerable, without much self-esteem and dreadfully shy. We get to see her, though, being determined and strong, kind and playful, wise and deep, and still somehow clumsy. Still herself.
Koizumi’s suggestion that it’s all a ploy is wrong. Our Asahina is really like this. She cannot see her older self. She’s not there yet (heh), but we know that she’ll become something of a timequake herself. And, when this Asahina looks at ours, it is with tenderness, hope, and nostalgia, as a mother would look at a young daughter, only more intimately, with more certainty.
Going into the world with a mission, with a prophecy, and finding causes and effects that surpass us, gradually discovering the unsuspected role we are to play, is something that we Christians have in common with Asahina. Sometimes, we only have certain formulations and instructions that we repeat to ourselves and to others, feeling overwhelmed, asking ourselves questions we don’t know the answer to.
Sometimes, what seems like an opportunity for love and joy must be let go of in the name of that hope. Sometimes, we face our immaturity, absurdities or sin, or that of others. Sometimes, we know that what the world deems unimportant is actually an open wound of dreadful consequences. And sometimes, we suffer.
We cannot yet see that someone who’s more intimate to us than ourselves will live in us. Connected to us by causation, by promises, by love. Christ said: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father”. He’s the vine, we’re the branches. In Him, all things are possible. Take heart and lift up your head, Asahina-san. Our hope draws near.
There’s a deep hope at the heart of the Haruhi franchise, and it shines brightly in this heroic and fulfilled Asahina. I cannot wait to see the journey there. I hope she will surprise the rest of the Brigade, and Haruhi in particular, with her own timequake-ness. Her initiative, her ideas, her kindness.
And, though the cause-effect relationship is the reverse, and we are the effects, Our Lord tells us in the Gospel that our Cause also values and freely honors that deep, intimate relationship, and His is the Fatherhood from which all other fatherhood takes its name.
Jesus’ enthusiasm for the Father is evident throughout the Gospel. He’s a Father even to the sparrows and the wildflowers, mighty and powerful, provident and wise, patient and merciful, and willing to lead us into our full timequake potential. With Him, we shall—like Asahina—change the world, and do what we truly want with a whole, loving, loyal heart.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya can be streamed on Funimation.