Over at The Edge, there is the annual Edge Question event. This year's question: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? Go read the responses, they're very interesting and very short.
Among the responses, W. Daniel Hillis suggests we retire the concept of cause and effect. Causes, he suggests, are just parts of a story we tell about the world.
Science is a rich source of powerful explanatory stories. For example, Newton explained how a force causes a mass to accelerate. This gives us a story of how an apple drops from a tree or a planet circles around the Sun. It allows us to decide how hard the rocket engine needs to push to get it to the Moon. Models of causation allow us to design complex machines like factories and computers that have fabulously long chains of causes and effects. They convert inputs into the outputs that we want.These stories can be very useful, but they can also be misleading.
It is tempting to believe that our stories of causes and effects are how the world works. Actually, they are just a framework that we use to manipulate the world and to construct explanations for the convenience of our own understanding.
So maybe the reason philosophers can't find a decent characterization of causes is that they are not really a part of the universe. Rather, they are something we invent - maybe in a rather haphazard and inconsistent manner - to help us track important aspects of the world around us.