Friday, September 14, 2007

Back to Basics of Causality

It seems to me that our discussion of determinism needs a little context and history. The concept of causality can be traced back the the philosopher Thales several hundred years before Plato. What it meant then was a revolt against the idea of the gods controlling our destinies. Let's remember that a lot of propitiating was going on. Sacrifices to the gods for a good harvest, victory in battle and a fruitful marriage were common. Homer's tales were taken to be historical along with their plots based upon the human relationship with protective or destructive gods and godesses. The idea that these events were the result of the law cause and effect and not the meddling of a slighted or mollified deity was new. Skipping forward a few thousand years, we find the philosopher David Hume arguing that there is no such thing a Divine Providence or even chance. There is only ignorance of the laws and circumstances that intervene between cause and effect. This was meant as an argument against an interventionist god and the efficacy of prayer, indulgences, etc. If Hume were alive today, he might be as unhappy as Einstein was, from an esthetic point of view, with the notion of quantum uncertainty, but he would not feel threatened. Quantum uncertainty does not call for pleas to interventionist gods.

Many in the public are ready and willing to pounce upon the slightest ripple of uncertainty in scientific causality to promote superstition. As an example, consider the followers of Feng Shui (the encoragement of good luck via visual design). I had a friend in Honolulu who made a good living by telling businesses how to decorate for maximum good fortune. To me, this is a good example of what may be an effective cause and effect relationship dressed in mysticism. For example, certain colors actually may put some customers in a better mood to make purchases, but the explanation for "why" lies in the psychological not the mystical. We are over two thousand years separated from Thales, but we are still in combat against superstition.

I think that the "particle in a box) problem is a good way of putting quantum uncertainty in perspective. You'll probably remember that if one solves Schroedinger's Equation for the case of a one dimensional world in which a single particle is trapped in a box, one gets a probability wave function which has high values inside the box and smaller values outside the box. This occurs even though the particle has insufficient energy to penetrate the walls of the box. These values outside the box seemed an error, until it was found that electrons could in fact penetrate electrical barriers for which they seemed to have insufficient energy. The practical result was a device called the "tunnel diode." The significance for me is that this is a clear boundary between the macro view of the world and the micro view. The electrical designer may benefit from the design opportunities afforded by a quantum view of the world, but no prison warden needs to make provisions for an escape due to one of his human "particles" escaping from his stone box by declaring his faith in Arnold Schroedinger. There is a finite probability that the prisoner outside the walls, but in this case improbability is as good as impossibility. With respect -Joel


Ira Glickstein said...

Joel, thanks for keeping this meta-thread going! As this is the third new Topic related to causality, I have created a box in the right-hand column that will allow easy access even after these postings fall off the current month archive.


It is interesting that you trace the concept of the "law of cause and effect" back to Thales (ca 600 BC, called "the father of science"). He searched for "naturalistic" explanations for events, rather than attribute them to the wiles of supernatural ones.

Note, however, that even pre-Thales thinkers accepted that everything had a cause. If we did not know the cause, it was attributed to God (or one of the gods).

If a rock hits a caveman, he is wired to look around for the enemy who threw it. That kind of reaction is key to survival. Our brains demand a cause for every effect.

Indeed, I read somewhere that this survival instinct is the source of our original belief in gods! According to this theory, if a fruit happens to fall on a caveman, he is wired to attribute it to someone. If there is no enemy to blame it on, he attributes it to the "god of the tree" or the "god of the wind" that blew it off the tree, etc.

The problem with (the Copenhagen Interpretation of) QM, for Einstein, Bohm, and me, is that, for most physicists, if the cause is not known they say there is no cause! To me, that smacks of "spontaneous generation" of maggots on rotting meat. Until it was proven (in 1859!) that maggots come from fly eggs, even well-educated people believed there was no cause at all!

I am willing to accept that we currently cannot predict when a particular radioactive atom will decay, and that we may never be able to make predictions at that level.

When a scientist claims that such decay is "random" I object! If we take a substantial mass of radioactive atoms, we can predict to many decimal places how many will decay over a specified period of time. To me, that is proof of some underlying cause. That cause may be unknown or forever unknowable by humans, but I cannot understand how any scientist can deny that it exists!

Here is a thought experiment: Scientists come upon a large number of white and black golfball-size spheres. They are made of some material that cannot be cut or crushed or penetrated by x-rays. They notice that, every once in a while, one of the white balls turns black. They keep records for a while and determine that the half-life of the white balls is one year. In one year, half the white balls turn black, The second year half of the remaining white balls turn black, and so on, until all the balls are black.

What would a true scientist have to conclude? Either there are pre-set "alarm clocks" in each ball, or a radio receiver tuned to some transmitter that triggers the change from white to black, or some internal or external cause or other!

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Howard Pattee said...

I just deleted the uncorrected draft. Here is what I meant to send.
I believe the common, everyday usage of the concept of causation, like determinism, is entirely pragmatic and largely subjective. We use the word cause for modeling simple events that might be controllable. The use of concepts like “causation and “determinism” at the level of fundamental physical laws has no empirical basis, and is now considered as only a gratuitous manner of speech with no explanatory value. Reality is beyond our imagination.
Bishop Berkeley thought it obvious that cause cannot be thought of apart from the idea of power to control. In other words, the value of the concept of causation lies in its identification of where our power and control can be effective. For example, while it is true that bacteria and mosquitoes follow the laws of physics, we do not say that malaria is caused by physical laws (the meaningless “universal cause”). That is because we can’t control physical laws, but we can control bacteria and mosquitoes. When we say that the lack of vitamin C is a cause of scurvy, all we mean is that vitamin C can control scurvy. Calling all the complex distributed networks of events necessary to model malaria or scurvy “causes” adds nothing to the explanatory value of the model.
Similarly, when we seek the cause of an accident, we are looking for those particular local events over which we might have had some control. We are not interested in all those parallel, subsidiary conditions that were also necessary for the accident to occur but that we could not control, or did not wish to control. For example, when an aircraft crashes there are innumerable subsidiary but necessary conditions for the accident to occur, like gravity and being airborne. When we look for "the cause" of the accident we are not looking for these multitudes of necessary conditions, but for a focal event that, by itself, might have prevented the accident but that would not have prevented the desired final result (arriving on time).
In our artificial technologies and in engineering practice we also think of causes in terms of control. For example, the electrical power that provides the light in my room is ultimately dependent on nuclear fission in the sun that drives the water cycle and photosynthesis (or by nuclear fusion on earth). Many complex machines and complex power grids are also necessary in the network of events lighting my room. So why do I normally think that the cause of the light in my room is my turning the switch on the wall? Because that is where I have local, apparently deterministic (intentional) control. Switching is a simple act that is easy to model, as contrasted with the endless complexities of nuclear reactions and distributed power networks, both of which require sophisticated statistical models.


Ira Glickstein said...

Howard ends his informative Comment with:

"So why do I normally think that the cause of the light in my room is my turning the switch on the wall? Because that is where I have local, apparently deterministic (intentional) control. Switching is a simple act that is easy to model, as contrasted with the endless complexities of nuclear reactions and distributed power networks, both of which require sophisticated statistical models."

I agree with the thrust of your Comment: It is normal for us humans to focus on what Aristotle calls the "efficient" cause and the "final" cause. You operated the light switch (efficient cause for you) because you wanted light so you could read in the room (final cause for you).

These are what might be considered the "tip of the iceberg". Out of sight in the chain (or network) of causes are the design and manufacturing and distribution processes that made the light bulb, the mines from which the materials came, the laws of nature behind converting electrical energy to light, the wires leading from the light bulb to the switch and from there to the power company. Also the source of the coal or oil to run the generators, you having paid your electric bill, and on and on and on ...

Howard focuses on the last element in this chain, the flipping of the light switch, "Because that is where I have local, apparently deterministic (intentional) control. ... easy to model .."

Yes, but for each of the other items in the network of causes, the persons who acted to make them happen also had local, intentional, deterministic control that would be easy for *them* to model.

For you, these other causes constitute the "material" and "formal" causes in Aristotle. However, to the designer of the light bulb, they were the "efficient" and "final" causes. He or she intended to do the design to earn money at his or her job. The same is true of the designers and operators and owners and investors in the power plant and the coal mine and so on.

Just because you (and I) don't focus on the whole network of causes, and could not name them all in full detail, does not mean they do not exist or that they were not intentional on the part of the actors who do focus on them!

Yes, the network of causes goes back eons to when the coal was formed from dead vegetation and from there back to the origin of life on earth and the formation of the earth and our solar system and ... the "big bang". But, at each step, I believe there was a cause (or more properly a network of causes).

I am currently reading a book my wife got me of the letters of famous physicist R.P. Feynman*. He writes that "experiment and observation is the sole and ultimate judge of the truth of an idea." That is the essence of the "scientific method." Run an experiment with carefully controlled initial conditions and observe the repeatable results. Cause and effect!

Where am I going wrong?

Ira Glickstein

For more on Aristotle's causes see:

According to the above, the four causes are:

The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.

The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.

The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.

The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.

*Feynman Book: Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, the Letters of Richard P. Feynman Basic Book, NY, 2005.

Stu Denenberg said...

Joel said:

"The concept of causality can be traced back the the philosopher Thales several hundred years before Plato."

I would add that the Buddha lived in the same time period as Thales (circa 500 BC) and his philosophy of karma (which is found in Hindu writings back as far as 1400 BC)also explains what happens using the laws of cause and effect: causes and conditions produce results that in turn change the conditions and create new causes.

I would also agree with Ira's response to Howard. I think the chain of cause and effect is a useful way of understanding reality even though we may not understand all of the causes and conditions in a particular situation. In a text by Thich Nhat Han he comments that there is sunlight in the page the reader is reading and goes on to describe the sunlight helping the tree to grow and the tree supplying the paper for the pages of his book. A simple example but one, I think, that helps us see the unity and connections in our world.

Ira Glickstein said...

Do dogs have free will?

We get two newspapers, tossed "randomly" on our driveway by two different delivery people. My dog fetches them, one by one.

Over the past few weeks I noticed a pattern. His first fetch is always the one furthest to the right! Even if the left newspaper is closer to his starting point, he always goes for the one to the right! (He must be a "C-mind" like me :^)

Today both newspapers were in a line, one at the curb and the other a considerable distance from the curb, neither one to the right nor the left. He fetched the closer one first!

Does he have free will?

Does my ability to unerringly predict his order of fetches in any way decrease his free will?

If "noise" in his brain, due to cosmic rays or whatever, made him deviate from his pattern ("right first, but if neither is right get closest"), would that in any way increase his free will?

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Ira said: Does my ability to unerringly predict his order of fetches in any way decrease his free will?

Good question, Ira. Here's what I love about being a nihilist. My philosophy answers all questions. Since your dog doesn't have free will, the fetching and its predictability neither increase nor decrease "free will." My nihilism tells me that both your dog's and my apparent free will are illusions that are in the mind of the beholder. With respect -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

You are a nihilist? Of course, you can define any word as you please (particularly if you *are* a nihilist), but, SO CAN I -- and I don't think, based on your previous postings you are actually a nihilist (not that there would be anything wrong if you were one :^)

According to WikiPedia: "Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, nothing) is a philosophical position which argues that the world, especially past and current human existence, is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. Nihilists generally assert some or all of the following: there is no reasonable proof of the existence of a higher ruler or creator, a 'true morality' does not exist, and secular ethics are impossible; therefore, life has no truth, and no action can be preferable to any other. The term nihilism is sometimes used synonymously with anomie to denote a general mood of despair at the pointlessness of existence."

Of course you fit some parts of that definition. But, I hope you are not in a general mood of despair or think our existence is pointless! If so, how to explain your dedicated and much appreciated efforts to make points on this Blog and your hard and successful work in other organizations?

Ira Glickstein

PS: This is even more interesting to me than my dog's possible free will! I think my dog and I and you have free will, properly understood, and not encumbered by any mystical sprits or "random"noise!

joel said...

Hi Ira,
As you see from your own research, nihilism has various definitions. I'll take the first one, but one definition elsewhere in Wikipedia says that nihilism isn't a philosophy so much as a pejorative term one uses to describe someone else's opinion. In that sense I was just being self-deprecating.

From Wikipedia: Nihilism is often more of a charge leveled against a particular idea, movement, or group, than it is an actual philosophical position to which one overtly subscribes. Movements such as Dada, Futurism,[2] and deconstructionism,[3] among others, have been identified by commentators as "nihilistic" at various times in various contexts. Often this means or is meant to imply that the beliefs of the accuser are more substantial or truthful, whereas the beliefs of the accused are nihilistic, and thereby comparatively amount to nothing (or are simply claimed to be destructively amoralistic).

When I say that there isn't such a thing as FREE will, I'm liable to be called a nihilist, when in fact I'm just rejecting a dualist point of view. There can only be "will", since "free will" is redundant. "Will" comes from "wollen" i.e., "to want." If I'm forced to do something, it's enough to say that it's against my "will" not my "free will". The word "free" was added by philosophers to engage the problem of whether what we believe to be our "will" is in fact our own "soul's will" unfettered by either determinism or God's knowledge of the future.

As a kind of nihilist, I doubt everything including my own convictions. How can one NOT be a nihilist when science asks us to believe that an electron or a photon should be modeled as a particle when observing the the results of one experiment and then modeled as a wave when observing another experiment? I know these models work, but I don't know that they have any basis in reality. I know that various models of consciousness have useful aspects, whether they be of Freud, Adler, etc. I doubt that these models are based on an objective reality, i.e., in the electro-chemical reactions going on in the brain. However, they are useful. All I ask of a model is that it be useful, even though I believe consciousness to be an illusion.

When an actor such as Marlon Brando uses the "method," he calls upon an experience from somewhere in his memory to recreate (or re-feel) that emotion. When an non-method actor such as Lawrence Olivier displays an emotion, he does it by synthesizing a face and gestures that he has seen displayed by people he's observed genuinely feeling that emotion. (He is in effect, an expert shape-shifter.) Both models produce results which are interpretted in the desired manner by the audience, but they have an entirely different source in the brain of the actor. Both work well in the hands of a master craftsman, so who cares which technique is "truer." I don't despair that I don't know the truth. I just accept the utility of the model, and admit the possibility of an even more useful model in the future. I'm neither a dualist nor a monist, therefore I'm a nihilist. With respect

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Joel!

Now I have a better idea of what you mean when you call yourself a nihilist.

I agree (more or less) with all your points.

Ira Glickstein