I’m going to do a couple of postings about causality, because it seems to me that how humans experience causality is of paramount importance to a lot of ideas such as “free will”, responsibility, and knowledge.
Presenting a philosophical framework in which to defend these ideas, however, is beyond me – so I’m going to approach the discussion casually, and I’ll be less rigorous about terminology than I’d have to be if I were going to try to defend my thoughts against a full-on skeptical enquiry.
I’m going to try to avoid making asssertions, since this discussion is sort of an oblique critique of Aristotelian ideas of causality. Let’s start by rejecting those as arbitrary.
Aristotle asserts that there are a variety of different kinds of causes: proximal causes, necessary causes, sufficient causes, final cause. Other than their potential usefulness as labels, we aren’t given a way to tell which kinds of causality are which, except for after the fact – which is how we humans appear to experience causality, anyway. In other words, after a tree falls in the forest, I can say “it was rotten at the roots, so it fell” or “there was strong wind so it fell” but it doesn’t make sense for me to say that before it falls (since it hasn’t fallen) and once it does fall, I can no longer really be sure which of the causes I assign to the event was really the cause. I start to have problems with cause and effect because the way we humans seem to assign them is 1:1 – there is A cause and AN effect, but reality appears to be much more complicated than that. Especially because reality doesn’t courteously come to a pause while we ponder cause and effect, it keeps right on rolling: what other things fell when the tree fell?
It appears to me that when something happens, it has multiple causes: the tree’s roots have to be weak or it wouldn’t blow over. But humans’ way of talking about cause and effect is to try to assign a 1:1 cause/effect relationship – which makes sense because otherwise we’re going to be unable to talk about cause and effect at all: were the roots 40% of the cause and the wind 60%? When Aristotle starts breaking causality into various types of causes, that’s pretty much what he’s saying. There are some causes without which an effect would never happen – the final cause – but there are other causes which lead up to the final cause, without which the final cause cannot happen. Aristotle’s example is teeth growing: they appear to grow because there are certain material causes (they must be physically assembled by the body via some process) but their final cause is teleological – we need teeth to chew with. Aristotle slides right by the problem that “having teeth” is a vague concept. At what point can we say someone has teeth? If we have trouble saying at what point someone has teeth at all, how can we say that something caused us to have teeth? If we’re going to say “the tree fell because the roots were rotten” we slide past the problem of saying what “rotten roots” means, and a pyrhhonian skeptic would probably appear to point out that our definition of “rotten roots” may be circular: we have rotten roots if they are so weak the tree falls down, therefore we can say that the tree fell down because it fell down. Ooops.
As I said in the beginning: I am not trying to present a philosophical world-view – I don’t have a framework in which to answer to these problems. In truth, I tend to be genuinely suspicious of people who do feel they have an answer, because I suspect they are engaged in motivated reasoning. Most of us will have encountered cause/effect based reasoning for the existence of god: there must be some un-caused cause, etc. I first started worrying about cause and effect because of that argument – the closer I looked at it the less I understood about cause and effect. Rather than believing in god, I just wound up confused.
“Why did the chicken cross the road?”
One of the many problems with that question is that it implies there’s a single cause for the actions of the chicken. But it seems to me that there are nearly an infinity of causes, if you want to start assigning causes:
- Because humans bred chickens
- Because there was a coyote chasing it
- Because of evolution
- Because chickens like to play in roads
- Because of the chicxulub event, which wiped out the dinosaurs and opened up new niches for life to evolve into, therefore: birds
- Because god said “let there be poultry, and roads”
- Because of The Big Bang
- It was trying to escape from Twitter
If we were to enumerate Aristotle’s causes, several of the ones on my list above are material causes, i.e.: “that out of which” the effect is made. After all, something made the chicken. But “evolution” or “humans breeding birds” or “eggs” or “grandma chicken” are equally good responses. We might say “let’s favor the ‘largest’ response on the list – i.e.: evolution had more to do with the creation of chickens than the chicxulub event, therefore it had more effect. But that’s a human conceit: the efficient cause – “the primary source of change” is simply whatever this particular human says it is; we have no means for determining primary source of change so our instinct appears to be to pick the earliest or most recent: the big bang, or the coyote.
Every effect has more than one cause. Simple cause and effect appears to be an illusion our brains create so we can cope with reality.
This is where I get off the trail and wander out into the weeds of nihilism. It appears to me that “cause and effect” is nothing more than a word we use – a shorthand, if you will – for our personal understanding of something that we observe. And our understanding is always limited by our senses and perspective, of course. Let’s reconsider the chicken, and let’s suppose for the sake of argument that there is a coyote stalking it. I observe the coyote and assign the coyote’s threatening behavior as one of the causes of the chicken’s crossing the road. But if the person standing next to me is positioned such that they don’t see the coyote (due to a philosophically convenient intervening rock) they may interpret the chicken’s road-crossing as due to an evolved-in fondness for roads, if they are an evolutionary psychologist. Then we’re right back to extreme skepticism: because of our inability to know anything due to the fallability of sense input (#include <skepticism/pyrrhonism.h>) we can’t make claims to knowledge about why the chicken did anything, but worse still: the tool we would use to talk about it between eachother is mere language, which is not reliable enough. We are left wondering if there’s a thing we would agree is a “chicken” at all, let alone a road-crossing event such as we would collectively agree that there had been a road, and it had been crossed by a chicken, and there was a thing we call a “coyote” involved, ad infinitum.
If I did have a framework for talking about causality, it would probably sound almost like woo-woo: “cause and effect” are the words we use to talk about our limited understanding of the events we are discussing, as a way of packaging up those events that we perceive as directly affecting them. Meanwhile, it seems to me now that cause and effect are not a simple linear chain of one event leading to another – the causes are the totality of prior events and the effects are all subsequent events. Causality is not a line, it is a meshwork that branches infinitely, because the closer we wish to examine any event, the more causes and prior causes we can identify. “Make me one with everything,” the buddhist said to the hot dog vendor. The hot dog vendor replied, “The big bang already did. That’ll be $5.”
So now I am back to my starting-point: “we experience causality.” It is difficult to convince me that we know anything about causality, aside from its being a handy organizing principle we can apply verbally when we are trying to communicate about something. That could go some way toward explaining why, when humans talk about cause and effect, we are all over the place – some of us think the chicken’s actions were purely internally-driven (“free will”) while others think the chicken was acting in a context where its options were constrained by the coyote (“it’s a meat robot programmed to avoid coyotes”) and – in the same breath, we can ascribe the entire thing to god or the big bang or both or neither.
From a practical standpoint, in order to make science work, we need to think about cause and effect as if it’s a simple linear model. In order to eat, our distant ancestors had to model game animals’ motivations in a simple linear model of cause and effect: if I wait for the chickens’ ancestors to cross the road and come to the watering-hole, I can eat one of them. It’s tempting, at this point, to adopt an evolutionary psychology-style “just so story” – our brains’ ability to interpret cause and effect is optimized to assign proximal cause to the point where we are most likely to be able to take an action that will confer a survival advantage.
Stanford Library of Philosophy: Aristotle on causality
Stanford Library of Philosophy: Vagueness