Causality


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causality — what is causality?  The basis of all theories of causality is the notion, more precisely intuition, that certain pairs of events are connected up in a  necessary fashion whilst others (the majority) are not. It doesn’t “just happen to be the case” that someone falls over if I give him a sudden hard push : if  he did fall, we would say that I caused him to stumble. On the other hand, if I am shaking his hand and he happens to trip over a stone at this precise moment, I didn’t cause him to fall over — though it might look as if I did to an observer  some distance away.    

            According to Piaget, the newborn child lives in a ‘world’ without space and time, without permanent objects and without causality. The universe “consists of shifting and insubstantial tableaux which appear and are then totally reabsorbed” (Piaget). However, the notion of causality arises very early on, perhaps even as early as a few months if we are to believe the researchers Ann Leslie and Stephanie Keeble [“Do Six-Month-Old Infants Perceive Causality?” Cognition 25, 1987 pp. 265-288]. Allegedly, when babies are shown ‘acausal’ sequences of events mixed up with similar causal sequences they show unmistakeable symptoms of surprise such as more rapid heart beat. Whether we accept this somewhat controversial finding or not, there can be no doubt that the baby very soon realises that by making certain movements or noises it can attract the attention of its mother quite successfully. In other words, Event A, such as gurgling or screaming, becomes regularly associated with a quite dissimilar Event B, the physical proximity of its mother or another grown-up. 

            The notion that ideas can just arise ‘out of the blue’ without antecedents is repugnant to adult human beings and any sort of an explanation, however fanciful,  is often felt to be better than none at all. Belief in causality, whether well-founded or not, certainly seems to be a psychological necessity. The main motive for populating the universe in times past with so many unseen entities was to provide causal agents for observed phenomena. By the time we reach the 18th century, largely because of the astonishing success of Newtonian mechanics, most of these supernatural agencies became redundant, at any rate in the eyes of educated people. The “thrones, principalities and powers” of which Saint Paul speaks disappeared into thin air, leaving only an omniscient Creator God who had done such a good job in fashioning the universe that it could run on its own steam without the need of further intervention. The philosophers of the Enlightenment rejected ‘miraculous’ explanations of physical events : in theory at any rate mechanical explanations sufficed. Newton himself was puzzled that he was unable to provide a mechanical explanation of gravity and, later on, electrical phenomena caused problems : but most physicists prior to the last quarter of the nineteenth century assumed with Helmholtz  that “all physical problems can be reduced to mechanical problems” and that calculus and Newton’s Laws were the passe-partout that could unlock the entire universe. 

            Through all this, belief in causality continued unimpaired. In principle there were no chance events, and the French astronomer Laplace went so far as to say that, if a Supermind knew in full detail the current state of the universe, such a mind could predict everything that was going to happen in the future. This view is no longer de rigueur, of course, mainly because of the discoveries of Quantum Theory which has uncertainty built right into it. But, for the moment, I propose to leave such complications aside in order to concentrate on what might be called the ‘Classic Theory of Causality’ — ‘classic’ in the sense that it was the theory upheld, or more often assumed, by the great majority of scientists and rational thinkers between the 16th and 20th centuries.


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            This Classic Theory would seem to be based on the four following assumptions:

  1. There exists a necessary connection between certain pairs of events, and by extension, longer sequences;
  2. The status of the two events in a causal pair is not equivalent, one of the two is, as it were, active and the other, as it were, passive or acted upon;
  3. The causal impulse is always transmitted from the earlier event to the later;
  4. All physical occurrences, and perhaps mental occurrences as well, are brought about by the prior occurrence of one or more previous events.

 

            These assumptions are so ‘commonsensical’ that almost everyone took them for granted, witness popular phrases such as “Every event has a cause” , “Nothing can arise from nothing” and so on. But then the 18th century British philosopher Hume threw a spanner into the works. He pointed out that these assumptions, and others like them, were, when all was said and done, simply assumptions. We do not, Hume pointed out,  ever see or hear this mysterious causal link : indeed it is notoriously difficult, even for trained observers, to distinguish between events which are (allegedly) causally related and those that are not — if this were not the case, the natural sciences would have develop much more rapidly than they actually did. 

            Nor do these assumptions appear to be  ‘self-evident’  — though this is undoubtedly how Leibnitz and other rationalist thinkers viewed them. As Hume says, the fact that event A has up to now always and in all circumstances been followed by event B, does not mean that this will automatically be the case in the future. (Indeed, though Hume could not know this, the assumption is false if Quantum Mechanics is to be believed since in QM identical circumstances do not necessarily produce identical results.)

            In brief, belief in causality is, so Hume argues, an act of faith. This was a very serious charge at the time since most scientists regarded themselves as having left behind theological  modes of thought. The nineteenth century, as it happened, took very little notice of Hume’s devastating criticisms : science needed a cast iron belief in causality and Claude Bernard even went so far as to define science as determinism. And since science was clearly working, most educated people were happy to go along with its implicit assumptions — perhaps making an exception for mankind itself to whom God had given the capacity for free choice which the rest of Nature did not possess.

           

            Actually, the four assumptions listed, necessary though they are, do not suffice to distinguish the post-Renaissance Western theory of causality from earlier beliefs and theories. Further restrictions were required to eradicate the remaining vestiges of magical pre-scientific thinking. The most important of these principles are  :

  1. The Principle of Spatio-Temporal Continuity;
  2. The Principle of Energy;
  3. The Principle of Localization;
  4. The Mind/Body Principle

 

These principles were, like the original four assumptions, usually implicit rather than explicit in the writings of Enlightenment and subsequent thinkers. (1) and (2) are ‘scientific’ in the sense that they have had great importance in the development of western science; (3) is not far from being ‘logical’ or ‘commonsensical’, while (4) is essentially philosophical.

             

 

(1.) The Principle of Spatio-Temporal Continuity.

 

This Principle is sometimes called the Law of Transmission by Contact. It is the celebrated prohibition of ‘action-at-a-distance’ that is held to mark the line of demarcation between magic and science. In magical belief systems the possibility of action at a distance is implicitly accepted : I can perform a rite here which will, say, cause the death of an animal or person several miles away. And I can perform a rite now which will cause it to rain tomorrow. In ‘scientific’ thnking such leap-frogging in space and time is not permitted : an impulse must make itself felt continuously between the place where it is produced and the place where the effect is observed.

            This Principle was assumed by Newton though he was embarrassed by the undoubted fact that his Law of Universal Attraction violated it, since the gravitational impulse was supposed to be propagated ‘instantaneously’ throughout the entire universe. This was incidentally one of the main reasons why continental scientists of Newton’s  time, while accepting  most of Newton’s terrestrial mechanics based on pushes and pulls, rejected his gravitational theory as being much too far-fetched. 

            Einstein in his Special Theory of Relativity also assumed the Principle and made it rather more precise by stating that no message, or causal impulse, could be transmitted at a speed faster than that of light. Since the speed of light in a vacuum is known, and believed to be fixed for all time, this put a serious restriction on the effects that any action of mine, or anyone else’s, could have : whole chunks of the universe were condemned to follow quite different destinies with no possibility of interaction between them simply because they were too far away from each other.

            Einstein was such a firm believer in the principle that he remained to his dying day sceptical about Quantum Mechanics (at any rate the orthodox formulation of it) because QM seemed to involve a sort of ‘telepathic’ connection between distant particles — the term was used by Einstein himself. (To date, experiments such as those conducted by Aspect suggest that there is indeed a ‘non-local’ connection between certain elementary particles.) 

            Despite all this, most of us still assume the validity of the principle : if I want to get from A to B, I have to traverse whatever lies in between, anything else is science-fiction. When we say that someone or something ‘did not have the time’ to get to a particular place, we are implicitly appealing to the Principle : if  it were possible to disappear and reappear more or less immediately somewhere the other side of the globe, travelling about wouldn’t require any more time than staying put. 

 

(2.)  The Principle of Energy

 

The Principle may be stated thus :

 

            All effective action on or in the world requires an energy source.

 

            This is a (deliberately) vaguer and more general version of the 1st Law of Thermo-dynamics which states that the total amount of energy within a closed system remains constant.

            We are familiar with the feeling of ‘being drained’ when we have concluded an exhausting task : it is as if something has been taken from us. What is this something? Not seemingly anything we can touch or see.

            Newton did not deal in ‘energy’ as such but ‘force’. Strictly speaking, ‘energy’ is ‘Potential Work’, i.e. “the first integral of Force with respect to Distance”. But few people, even professional scientists, envisage energy in this way. The 19th century scientific and technological concept of energy fitted in well with a much earlier and more primitive notion, that of an immaterial potency that  is all around us and can be harnessed by man, what the Polynesians called mana, the North American Indians wakanda and the ancient Chinese ch’i. 

            Why “can’t you get owt for nowt?” Essentially, because of the Principle of Energy : if you want results, you must expend energy, either yours or someone else’s. Even money only brings about changes in the world  because it enables one to command machines or persons to do your bidding, and both persons and machines wear out. 

            Why are a lot of people sceptical about Uri Geller’s alleged ability to bend spoons by touching them? Because of the Principle of Energy. Although the human body does contain electro-magnetic energy, the source is too feeble to bring about such effects directly. Most so-called occult phenomena involve a violation of the Principle of Energy which is why the present society, rightly or wrongly, dismisses them out of hand — a well-known physicist of the time damned Professor Taylor for even investigating Uri Geller. But, of course, if one is not allowed to test certain alleged effects, it is impossible to get them accepted by the scientific authorities : this shows to what extent science is not pragmatic but remains hidebound by certain long-standing beliefs or prejudices.  

 

(3)  The Principle of Localization

 

This Principle does not, as far as I know, appear explicitly in the writings of any thinker, ancient or modern : it is nonetheless extremely important. Put crudely, it is the claim that  

 

Everything that really exists must be somewhere.

 As such, this is a very restrictive requirement indeed. Where are we to locate  the home of all these gods, spirits, demons that obsessed and terrified ancient man?   In the past they could be safely relegated to unexplored parts of the Earth, or to ‘Olympus’, somewhere up in the sky. But we, having been to many of these places and taken photographs of them, know that these beings are not to be found there and, if astronomers are to be believed, there’s not much place for them on distant galaxies either since the same set of natural laws are applicable everywhere in the universe. So, according to the Third Principle, these alleged beings must either be ‘nowhere’, or ‘in people’s heads’.

            The Principle of Localization, or a natural extension of it, also stipulates that an entity cannot be in more than one place at a time, i.e. the possibility of multi-localization is explicitly denied.  It is basically because of the Principle of Localization that scientists and rationalists do not take to the idea of a ‘Group Mind’ or ‘species mind’ — for where exactly are these collective entities? 

            Quantum Mechanics, of course, does not verify the Third Principle since, prior to an ‘act of measurement’, an elementary particle does not (according to the orthodox interpretation of the theory) have an exact position, it is, if you like, ‘all over the place’. But this is one of the main reasons why Quantum Mechanics is so worrisome.

 

(4.) The Mind/Body Principle

 

The Fourth Principle may be stated thus :

 

            The mind is confined within the bounds of the body, and can only bring about changes in the world via the body, or an extension of the body.

 

            The Fourth Principle is really nothing but a special case of the First combined with the Third — for the mind, if it exists, must be somewhere.

            For many physicists and psychologists ‘mind’ is just a handy word : only the brain exists. But the looser and more general formulation above is much more significant since even people who are prepared to accept that there is such a thing as the ‘mind’, distinct from the brain, are maybe not prepared to accept that the mind can be separated at will from the body, can ‘have a life of its own’, so to speak. 

        When a burglar ties up a man’s hands and feet, and gags him or her, the burglar feels pretty confident that the victim will be unable to send for help. Why does he believe this? Because of the Fourth Principle.

            A certain Zen exercise tells you to “Stop that ship on the distant ocean”. By the Fourth Principle, such a feat is impossible.      

            Not all persons and societies subscribe to the Fourth Principle — indeed I am not sure that I subscribe to it myself. The young child imagines that it can affect the world around it simply by an act of will and most early societies were firm believers in the power of Mind over Matter. “Hopi attitudes,” writes Whorf, “stress the power of desire and thought. To the Hopi one’s desires and thoughts influence not only his immediate actions but the whole of nature as well” (Whorf, Language, Truth and Logic).

            The radical dualism which we inherit from the Greeks (rather than the Jews) probably goes right back to shamanism which has been described as mankind’s earliest religion. In trance the shaman’s body remains on the floor of the hut in full view, but his ‘spirit’ travels far away. Contemporary people who claim to have had OBEs (Out-of-the-Body-Experiences) — and there are plenty of them — clearly do not accept the Mind/Body Principle. Such people claim, for example, to have seen themselves (or rather their bodies) undergoing surgery, and have described what went on. Official science takes a dim view of such claims — why?  Because of the Fourth Principle.

 

The case of Free Will

 

We appeal, implicitly or explicitly, to one or other of these Four Principles every day of our lives and belief in them is built into our legal system. Why is it so important for the accused  person to produce an alibi? Because of the Third Principle. If Mr. X was at spot A at 10.30 p.m., ergo he cannot have been at spot B several miles away at the same moment.   For societies which believed in virtually instantaneous travel — as happens in some stories in the Arabian Nights —  Mr. X’s observed presence at spot A during the evening wouldn’t be so convincing. 

            In this sort of case we are also implicitly invoking the Fourth Principle since we rule out the possibility of Mr. X causing Mr. Y’s death “just by willing it”, even if we knew he hated Mr. Y like poison and would have been glad to see him go. But in the days when people often died suddenly from wholly mysterious diseases, the idea that someone had perhaps put the Evil Eye on you seemed perfectly plausible, since, after all, people don’t die without a reason — Every event has a cause 

 

            We believe, broadly speaking, that adult, sane human beings are responsible for their actions and, in consequence, can be justifiably applauded and/or rewarded for certain acts, likewise justifiably reproved and punished for certain others. We  believe there really is a causal connection between the two events of, say, my pressing the trigger and Mr. Y collapsing (assuming, of course, we have no reason to believe that there was a third party who also fired off a gun at the same moment). But the two events are quite distinct and the connection between them, though ‘obvious’ to us, would not be ‘obvious’ to someone who had never seen or heard of firearms  — why doesn’t the bang of a firecracker cause someone to collapse to the ground?

            In such a case we would normally also believe that I was ‘responsible’ for Mr. Y’s death : I had either been culpably negligent or had wanted to kill him.  Belief in free will includes belief in causality but involves other assumptions, notably the belief that I am in some sense ‘above and beyond’ the mechanical processes that govern inanimate nature. We don’t blame a rolling stone for unleashing an avalanche, or even the hare that dislodged the stone. But we would blame a rock climber in such circumstances if only for not taking enough care, especially if he or she had been warned in advance.

            It is not clear whether belief in freewill contradicts one or other of the four Principles listed here, but possibly it does. A belief in Freewill is maybe the last relic we have from a religious/magical view of the universe and many scientists are uneasy about it for this reason (though, illogically, that doesn’t seem to stop them becoming  extremely indignant if anyone actually attacks them physically or steals their property).    


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1 Comment

  1. ron hansford said,

    July 13, 2009 at 8:01 am

    A lucid and masterful exposition of these complex scientific ideas, we also sense the Shamanistic world trembling at the edge of the known.


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