Confusion over causality – some reflections
Posted by robertpriddy on March 25, 2010
CAUSAL DESCRIPTION OR EXPLANATION?
Science aims at the explanation, through tangible tests of some sort, of the cause of each event it investigates. It then seeks to generalise about events to find and demonstrate regular orders (i.e. natural laws) to which they conform, whether or not this order is evident to the ordinary observer. By and large the physical sciences claim to discover just such natural laws, the main exception being micro-physics with its discovery of inherent physical paradoxes and a certain ‘indeterminacy’ in micro-events. In our day, however, the empirical scientist still tends to accept the assumption of a non-purposive universe. This is a belief, not a fact, of course and – like all beliefs – it is backed by various arguments and demonstrations, none of which are – or can ever be – conclusive proofs. The revered Law of Universal Causation which asserts that ‘every event has a cause’ came to be interpreted as ‘each event has only one prior cause’. Paradoxically, the idea of the father of biology, Aristotle, that ‘nothing in nature is in vain’, and therefore has an inherent purpose or meaning, was thus distorted and narrowed by modern science. Probably a majority of biologists, being mainstream Darwinists, still reject the notion of cosmic purpose of any sort (from Monod, Dobhanzsky etc. and on down to Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins) and largely join physics and the non-science mathematics (which is the very model of logic) in upholding the belief that ‘chance’ or ‘randomness’ and ‘sheer accident’ do occur.
However, the paradoxocal consequences of the deterministic position that is, its lack of logical consistency across the whole field of events – have caused some biologists to look towards goal-fulfillment (teleological explanation) to account for evolution. One thought-provoking instance is Rupert Sheldrake’s teleological viewpoint in A New Science of Life, which it is no exaggeration to say has not been welcomed by the mainstream. Sheldrake’s explanation of natural forms (morphology) is goal-oriented rather than causal and Darwinistic. However, this current move towards seeking teleological explanations again is part of a general apparent ‘religious revival’ and does not represent any signs of radical or extensive change in the views of world science. Time will tell whether this new religiosity is mainly an effect of access to the Internet so many underdeveloped societies where religions have always been strongly held, and whether it is more like a ‘swan song’ from a culture which is under greater and greater threat by modern education, science, technology and changing lifestyles.
When any scientist today speaks of the ’cause’ of an event, what is really meant is simply ‘that event which is always observed immediately to precede the event caused’. Explanation is thus a mere description of a series of events observed always to be regularly connected to one another. It is agreed by scientists themselves that such (detailed) descriptions are the only sort of ‘explanations’ that science can provide. What is ‘explained’ is simply how much more detailed and complex many events are than is generally perceived or thought. Once consequence of the prime importance of the temporal connection between two events is that explanations are driven to micro-temporal events (hence also often at the ultimate microscopic level). This makes it more and more difficult to establish causal connections at the level of normal, humanly-experienced events. However significant statistical connections between events may prove to be, they do not locate or explain the causal connections.
There is another sense which the idea of cause usually implies which is left unexplained… what actually creates the connection between cause and effect and, further, what sustains it in every instance? Descriptions answer questions of ‘how’ or ‘in what manner’, whereas the word ‘why’ asks for more than a description, but a proper explanation. Scientists might prefer that the word ‘why’ did not exist at all. But exist it does and, though science assumes that ‘every event must have a cause’, there must be a reason (cause?) for the concept ‘why’. The time-honoured notion of a cause, however, originally meant that there was some power, some purposeful principle or an operative Will operating on events or itself somehow inherent in events. Knowing that power, how and why it operates as it does to create and maintain order and causality in nature – rather than the reverse – would amount to explaining events fully. Both philosophers and scientists agree that such a cause is not observable by use of any of the five senses or their combinations. Since David Hume wrote his famous analysis showing how observation reveals the baselessness of the idea of ‘necessary connection’ between cause and effect, this doctrine has virtually become universally accepted among scientists.
Empiricism has consequently re-defined the ancient idea of ’cause’ to narrow its scope. The end result is that one observes that B follows A, but one does not claim it must so do, or that a connecting factor between events is understood. Science does not try to answer ‘why’, it even rejects rational explanations entirely if they have no observable cause. Sometimes – but not always – an exception is made for our explanations of our own motives or intentions, which science may or may not recognise as the sufficient ’cause’, depending on the degree of physicalistic strictness in the particular school of thought.
Scientific empiricism serves to summarise and generalise the information gathered from a plethora of different individual descriptions. Scientific experiment is no more (or less) than a method of discovering which descriptions (or generalised descriptions known as hypotheses) are based on accurate observations. If the observations are lacking, the hierarchy of descriptions (from hypotheses to theories) are thrown into doubt and require to be modified or rejected, according to the seriousness of their lack of accuracy etc. This is the essence and the extent of all scientific theory and method, however intricate, however far-reaching its observations in time and space. Beyond this descriptive understanding it cannot go, not – that is – without becoming ‘unscientific’. All this is long-established and non problematical doctrine in the history and philosophy of science. The most abstract and concise theories in any science do no more than compress and unify such ‘causal’ descriptions of physical nature. This is the whole of it; science does not really explain but rather shows us how to observe and manipulate the environment more accurately and thus effectively.
There are also anomalies that arise when trying to apply the idea of cause as it was traditionally defined, as Prof. Joad pointed out long ago, “Under the influence of the theory of relativity, twentieth-century physics tends to account for the movements of an entity X solely in terms of happenings in the immediate vicinity of X.” but the facts of nature show that “…modifications are the more intense near the place of origin, less intense as we travel away from it. Now the so-called law of cause and effect constitutes a particular case of force operating from over a distance, and the law is, therefore, affected by the abandonment of the general conception of which it is a special case.(2) Joad held that, for a variety of reasons the kind of causation which the mechanist theory of the universe requires, long regarded as untenable by philosophers, was in large measure rejected by physicists. This action from a distance is now called ‘field effect’, and is still behind a closed gate, as it were. All magnetism is field effect, with the magnetic influence of the sun and earth as impressive instances.
In summary, the basic idea of causation obviously cannot be rejected, for there is no adequate replacement for this practically unavoidable way of thought. (Kant even saw the idea of causality as one of the few fundamental functions inherent to the human mind at the deepest level). In a profound sense, though, science can even be said not to be able to explain how any event really occurs. The causes and effects described by science can themselves be said to have an unexplained cause (in the fuller sense of the word ’cause’). An example helps to illustrate this: what is the cause of the digestive processes that enable the human body to utilise the energy in foodstuffs as sustenance for the ‘inexplicable’ life force? It is certainly not just the presence of digestive enzymes, for this itself requires ‘explanation’. The bio-chemical construction and functions of enzymes do not help to explain their existence, but only which conditions are observed as accompanying their production. Nor does any such analytic observation help explain their immediate purpose (i.e. which functions they fulfil). Like all physical science, bio-chemistry is devoid of any idea of purpose in nature. It can trace the physical origins to amazing lengths, not least going far back into the past. One can surely say that the purpose is the sustenance of the life-principle in the body, but then one must answer what the purpose of the life principle is. This is doubtless a question beyond the methods and theories of science. It is not a question to which numerous and various answers can be supplied, but the question itself relies on an unproved – and most likely untestable – assumption, that life has a pre-set purpose. Meanwhile, events of the future are virtually a closed book to most of the predictions of science, and to all the prophesies of religion. It is overwhelmingly a case of ‘wait and see’. to ‘know’ how it will actually devolve.
THE PROBLEM OF CAUSAL MULTIPLICITY
The insistence of scientific theorists on there being one cause of each event is understandable, because this has proven a very fruitful assumption indeed to the methodic progress of analysis and experiment in physics and the allied natural sciences. Isolating one factor as the crucial factor is doubtless applicable in studying the processes of nature at an elemental level. But what of nature at the higher levels, of the bamboozingly intricate and countless interacting functions of life?
The complexity of an eco-system, even of a tiny part of eco-systems such as the bacteriological processes within a cubic inch of fertile soil, are still far beyond comprehensive observation or calculation. The same applies to the interactive system of bio-chemicals in the human body, which is a complex beyond the reaches of all analysis and calculation. The simple idea of one-cause-one-effect is evidently totally futile at the level of articulation of life reached in the human being, with its endlessly varied emotions (as described ever anew in world literature), with the billions upon billions of perceptions, thoughts, ideas, word-pictures, actions, and with the constantly changing and growing gestalts of taste, opinion, behaviour, desire, aspiration, art, music, organisation etc…
As long as we consider very basic processes between the elements in nature, the idea of ‘linear’ cause-effect chains of causation is useful for identifying and isolating regularities of connection of events. But nature has many levels of increasing articulation, such that it is both theoretically and practically quite impossible to analyse every kind of event – and often unique combination thereof – so as to arrive at any reasonable account of causes.
When people speak of causes of upheavals in nature, of wars or even of some important action by an individual, it is just not feasible to speak in terms of a single cause. Usually one points out many contributing ’causes’, which usually are seen as human motives formulated amid all manner of physical and social conditions. What is virtually a theory of multiple causation is then called for. It is simply not acceptable to argue for one single event as causing the murder of a person such as Trotsky. No single micro event can be singled out as ‘crucial’ among the mass of events that brought about that terrible act. No more does it make sense to say that one single cause led Chamberlain to decide on his famous declaration of war against the Third Reich is too absurd to be even worth considering. The same logic necessarily applies to all social events where any kind of intentional decisions were involved.
What sets going and sustains the incredibly intricate interplay of chemicals and enzymes in cell life to behave organically, attracting and repelling, bonding or destroying, initiating division or impeding it, defending and attacking… is not explained at all. Some immediate causes are so far described, yet the whole interaction of chains of events is invariably only known to a relatively minor extent. The bewildering bio-interactions within even the simplest living organisms make simple cause-effect thinking look a very inadequate and rough intellectual tool. Though molecular biology, which is highly analytical, still manages largely with the principle of isolating a single cause to each event, ecological biology cannot do so, and so rather seeks the holistic view. To try to isolate one single cause of the depletion of a particular species of insect in a rain forest is about as futile as trying to isolate one cause for the depletion of the world’s rain forests. One may even say with considerable good reason that each such event is simply caused by ‘human greed’, but this is not scientifically satisfying because it does not advance our understanding of the intricacies of the whole global process. Even to know all the inter-relations of countless billions of microscopic events within a small area of forest neglects the influence of major weather patterns, many kinds of human intervention (like logging, pollution etc.)
The above problem applies very largely in all the sciences that deal with such events which are thought to be very complex combinations of single events, which is to say most of them. Many such events, however, are unitary and have the nature of wholes or ‘gestalts’, such as with eco-systems of any kind and with most psychological, social, economic, anthropological, historical or allied phenomena.
It is possible, thinking of Wittgenstein’s apposite remarks on the functions of language in clouding thought, that sheer grammar lies behind the fixation of scientists on the singularity of causes: the phrase ‘has a cause’ may have mislead reason away from what otherwise is obvious, some events can have several or more concurrent causes (often called ‘factors’ or ‘variables’ in methodological jargon), without which those events could not have occurred.
Bertrand Russell was even of the opinion that the language of cause and effect was merely a convenient shorthand for certain purposes, but does not represent anything that is genuinely to be found in the physical world. This is basically only Hume again. One weakness of this is that it undermines the chief guiding principle of science through the ages, which has contributed greatly to its advances. More serious, though, is its rejection of a concept which is found in some form in every human culture and which is indispensable according to many philosophers, not least Kant who elevates the idea of causation to the most important of the mind’s inherent or a priori categories. To reject the idea of cause is like saying, ‘there are no grounds whatever for anything to happen as it does’.