Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Causality, Correlation and Common Sense

By Steve Rensberry

   How do we know what causes produce what effects? The question seems simple enough on the surface, but dig deeper and the issue becomes much more complex, unequivocally intertwined as it were with matters of definition, belief and time.
   Think for a minute whether a ball dropped from a person's hand falls--in an absolute and definitive sense--because, A) the person released his or her grip, or B) because gravity pulls the ball downward. If we answer "A," then it begs the question of what happens in a zero-gravity environment, where releasing one's grip on a ball would, in effect, do little to ensure that the ball falls to the ground. If we answer "B," then what need is there even to release one's grip? Gravity, in this case, may clearly be a factor, but it would take a major leap of blind faith to consider it to be the sole and absolute cause.
   Creating further difficulty is the rather dubious nature of things themselves, whether we're talking about physical objects and phenomenon, or about abstract constructs of the mind -- or perhaps some combination of the two. What, at their very deepest essence, is an atom, a molecule, or a chair? To a human, a chair is a place to sit. To a termite, it is food. Atoms and molecules, likewise, are often defined simply as the building blocks of the material world, but what is a "building block" other than some definition we choose to give something, relative to the way we perceive reality? Is it a block or the mere manifestation of something else? It depends how you look at it and what type of purpose we assign to it.
   Time adds another twist to the slippery concept of causation, with delayed effects and delayed influence often blurring the lines considerably. Scientists and health officials who studied the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, for instance, have predicted a 2 percent increase in the cancer rate for those exposed to some measure of contamination near the site -- but over a period of 70 years. Can we be absolutely sure the reactor's explosion is what causes a victim's cancer, if they do in fact fall ill? Establishing cause and effect with such delayed timing can be a guessing game at best.
   Author Ben Dupré writes about the cognitive tug-of-war going on between physicalists and dualists with respect to causation and the mind-body problem.
   "Physicalist's solutions to the mind-body problem brush aside many of the difficulties of dualism at one stroke. In particular, the mysteries of causation that torment dualists are dispelled by simply bringing consciousness within the scope of scientific explanation," Dupré states. "Predictably, critics of physicalism complain that its proponents have brushed aside too much; that its successes have been achieved at the heaviest cost -- of failing to capture the essence of conscious experience, its subjective nature." (50 philosophy ideas you really need to know, Quercus Publishing Plc, London, 2007, pg 31).
   What fascinates me greatly are the claims to certainty that so many people and groups adhere to in respect to causation, where circumstance itself is seen not so much as the product of some prior event or force, but as the consequence of some mysterious intent or force from another time and place altogether.
   Karma posits a world in which actions in this life cause effects in a future life. Indian philosophy, as represented by Satkaryavada, supposes that the effect is somehow bound up, or pre-existing, within the cause itself. Buddhist teaching, in particular the concept of Pratityasamutpada, considers an effect to have more than one cause. Then we have theistic and supernaturalist systems of belief, which arguably do away with cause and effect altogether by presupposing that all of reality--right down to the smallest element, mental construct and sociological circumstance--is but the manifestation of some higher being's will and eternal nature.
   Again, it begs the question. What exactly do we mean by the terms themselves? What is a "cause?" What is "an effect?" The indeterminacy introduced by quantum physics, and the concept of nonlocality, complicates the issue even further.
   Let me suggest that we may, just may, be looking for certainty of the kind that simply does not exist, with the only thing we can rightfully be expected to know with some limited degree of certainty being the proximate cause of relative effects. This may not satiate those who are prone to embrace as absolute truth the mere penumbra of a very wide spectrum of earthly phenomenon, but intellectual honesty beckons.
   No clearer divide can be seen on the subject of causality than between the goals and methodology of science--which establishes causative relationships primarily by way of carefully controlled testing and repeatability--and those beliefs which employ some element of magical thinking--and which establish causative relationships primarily through correlation. Do magical, superstitious and supernaturally-oriented systems of believe stand the test of common sense? Because A happens with B present, does that mean that A was caused by B? If it begins raining right after you walk into a building, does that mean that your entrance into the structure caused it to rain? If only there weren't so many people who actually believed that such correlation was sufficient, we wouldn't need to worry.

For further reading:

Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion