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In philosophy a proximate cause is an event which is closest, or immediately responsible, for producing some observed result. This exists in contradistinction to a higher-level ultimate (also called distal) cause which is usually thought of as the "real reason" something occurred.
- Example: Why did the ship sink?
- Proximate cause: Because it was holed beneath the waterline, water entered the hull and the ship became heavier than the water which supported it, so it couldn't stay afloat.
- Ultimate cause: Because the ship hit a rock which tore open the hole in the ship's hull.
In most situations, an ultimate cause may itself be a proximate cause for a further ultimate cause. Hence we can continue the above example as follows:
- Example: Why did the ship hit the rock?
- Proximate cause: Because the ship failed to change course to avoid it.
- Ultimate cause: Because the ship was under autopilot and the autopilot received bad data from the GPS.
Separating proximate from ultimate causations frequently leads to better understandings of the events and systems concerned.
Proximal and distal explanations in clinical psychology
The notion of proximal and distal factor in the causation of mental health problems is a key component of the thinking of David Smail who emphasises that peoples difficulties are likely to be more influenced by distal, social and economic forces, than proximal forces such as relationship stress that can be addressed in therapy.
- Proximate causation: Explanation of an animal's behavior based on trigger stimuli and internal mechanisms.
- Ultimate causation: Explanation of an animal's behavior based on evolution - why this specific trait was favored by natural selection.
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