Saturday, August 20, 2011

Causality and its Discontents

(Das Unbehagen in der Kausalität)

The profoundly unenquiring mind, if such there be, does not wonder what causes what, but simply takes life as it comes.  One senses such a temper among the ducks.

The human mind, by contrast, has a weakness for overascription (thus including misascription) of causality:   and this, along two basically opposite lines.

            We are subject to the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc -- which owes its longevity in part to the fact that, survival-wise, it is mostly a pretty decent rule of thumb.
            A special case of misascription, what we might call the “premature ejaculation in ascription of causation” -- mistaking the immediate trigger for an underlying cause -- is treated here.

(2) The philosophical

            The above are instances of an amiable intellectual laziness.  Swimming quite in the other direction is the well-known observation of (pre-P.C.) anthropology, summarized here by the philosopher Mario Bunge (in Causality, 1963):

It seems … characteristic of primitive mentality … to assign a cause to everything that is, begins to be, or passes away, and, particularly, to invent myths for explaining causally  the origin of what we now regard as self-existent, unengendered, uncaused:  namely, the universe as a whole;  thus many cosmogonies … satisfy the urge for causal explanation.

Bunge then cites the locus classicus of this and related views, the 1910 volume of Lévy-Bruhl (no longer salonfähig), with the no-longer-salesworthy title of Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures.   But my point here is that, in this particular respect, the inquiring primitive is more like the scientist than is the modern Western consumer zoned-out in his barcalounger.

Steven Weinberg begins his classic 1977 best-seller The First Three Minutes  by citing such a creation-myth:

The origin of the universe is explained in the Younger Edda, a collection of Norse myths compiled around 1220… In the beginning, says the Edda, there was nothing at all.  [Later] there grew a giant, Ymer.  What did Ymer eat?  It seems there was also a cow.  And what did she eat?  Well, there as also some salt. And so on.
I must not offend religious sensibilities, even Viking religious sensibilities, but I think it is fair to say that this is not a very satisfying picture of the origins of the universe.

Very true indeed.  Yet no more satisfying are the origin-myths for consciousness, free will, morality, art, and so forth, offered up by the neuroscientists and sociobiologists, who  beneath their lab-coats  seem to be clad in animal-skins.   Indeed, in one respect we must prefer the Edda, in that Snorri Sturleson -- unlike his latter-day intellectual siblings who try, not to explain what makes us human, but to explain it away -- was not attempting, in his pleasant fable, to deny that the universe exists.
            Thus, in both cases -- the primitive cosmogonist, and the modern reductionist -- people began with excellent intentions but were satisfied to stop short with an account devoid of explanatory value.   And again in this case, I’d say the folk-mind wins on points, in that its creation-stories tend to be good-humored and not to take themselves too seriously -- things like “How the Leopard Got His Spots”.

(For an origin-myth of the Urysohn Metrization Theorem, unearthed from an ancient M.I.T. manuscript, click here.)

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