Thursday, August 4, 2011

Notes towards an eventual essay on Causality

The word “cause”    is an altar

to an unknown god

-- Wm. James

[Over the years, I have built up a file of many hundreds of pages, consisting of juicy quotes on various topics, raw materials for many a book and essay.  However, the publishing landscape being what it is, these have long lain fallow.  In all likelihood, the Reaper will be requiring an audience before all this grist can be milled.   A shame for it all simply to lie there, where the worm doth bore and the mice do gnaw.  So herewith a tiny sampling, as hostages to fortune, and a goad to the Muse.]

Let’s start things off with a quotation that sets matters in the perspective of a mystery.
Abraham Pais, a physicist and friend of Einstein, on the very first page of his technically-dense biography of Einstein (Subtle is the Lord), mentions a poser that motivated him to write the book:

I wondered once again about the question, Why does this man, who contributed so incomparably much to the creation of modern physics, remain so attached to the nineteenth-century view of causality.

We shan’t answer this here, but for now we'll merely offer a bouquet of quotes illustrating thoughts about causality, down the ages.

(1) Causality in general

Chaucer, Tale of Melibeus (following Aristotle):
"The wrong that thou hast received  hath certain causes, which that clerks clepen Oriens and Efficiens, and Causa longinqua and Causa propinqua; this is to seyn, the fer cause and the ny cause.  The fer cause is almighty God, that is cause of all things.  The neer cause is thy three enemies.  The cause accidental was hate.  The cause material been the five wounds of thy daughter. The cause formal is the manner of their working, that broughten ladders for to slay thy daughter …"

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), p.75: "He could not pronounce that the one event was connected: but only that it was conjoined with the other."   (cf., later, “synchronicity”)

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748, 1777), p. 76:
"We may define a cause to be an object, followed by another, and where all the objects similar to the first  are followed by objects similar to the second.  Or in other words where, if the first object had not been, the second never had existed." 
These are not in fact equivalent formulations.  The first is too broad, and would apply to prefaces and books.  The second would not apply to these, as there exist books without prefaces.

Hermann Paul, Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte (1880, 5th edn. 1920), p. 24: "Denn zwischen Abstraktionen gibt es überhaupt keinen Kausalnexus, sondern nur zwischen realen Objekten und Tatsachen."

Ward & Waller, eds. The Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. I:  From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance (1907), emphasizing intralingual change rather than French influence:
The differences between the grammar of Old English  and that of the English of Chaucer’s day must be ascribed to internal agencies.

"The law of causality, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm."
Bertrand Russell, "On the Notion of Cause" (1912).

P.A.M. Dirac, The Principles of Quantum Mechanics (1930; 4th edn. 1958), p. 4:
We must revise our ideas of causality.  Causality applies only to a system which is left undisturbed.  If a system is small, we cannot observe it  without producing a serious disturbance  and hence we cannot expect to find any causal connexion between the results of our observations.  Causality will still be assumed to apply to undisturbed systems.

Robert Lindsay & Henry Margenau, Foundations of Physics (1936), p. 522:
That many miracles have allegedly been predicted, is hardly sufficient to reconcile their occurrence with the causality postulate.  We conclude:  The positivistic formulation, with its main emphasis upon human ability to know, does not express the nucleus of what is understood by causality.

As to what does express this nucleus (they go on), it is somewhat surprising to the average man on the omnibus:

Consistency of nature, i.e. causality, may be characterized by saying: The differential equations  in terms of which nature is described,  do not contain explicit functions of the time.

This is followed by more technical observations concerning “impressed forces”, and closed vs. open systems.

Mark Sullivan, Our Times VI (1939), p. 74: "I doubt whether a nomination for the Presidency (or anything else) ever merely 'happens', always it must be brought about  and always somebody must play the part of bringer-about."

A. D’Abro, The Rise of the New Physics (1939), vol. II, p. 944:
When Planck advanced his quantum theory of equilibrium radiation, science was confronted with a doctrine in which the succession of events  was not continuous, and in which  causal relations between successive events  were not specifically asserted.  The highly speculative nature of Planck’s ideas  prevented them from receiving immediate acceptance;  but around the year 1907, the remarkable successes of Planck’s theory in other realms of physics  silenced all opposition, and from then on  serious doubts were cast on the validity of rigorous causality in physical science.

Nonlinearity entails noncausality … Causality is a first approximation … a linear approximation to determinism.
Mario Bunge, Causality and Modern Science (1959, 1963).  He traces the ancestry of this insight to Bridgeman, The Logic of Modern Physics (1927).

A.J. Ayer, Scientific American, Oct 1965: "Even in a field in which causal laws are well established, there is often a certain looseness in the way they fit the facts. … These slight deviations are not held to be significant; they are ascribed to errors of observation.
            'Errors of observation', however, is here a term of art.  Apart from the existence of the deviations, there is usually no reason to suppose that any errors have occurred.  Now, I think it possible that this looseness of the fit  cannot be wholely eliminated; in other words, that there are limits to the precision with which the course of nature can be prospectively charted." This margin then is "in the hands of chance."

Resnick & Halliday, Physics (1966), p. 87:
"If one of the two forces involved in the interaction between two bodies is called an 'action' force, the other is called the 'reaction' force.  Either force may be considered the 'action' and the other the 'reaction'.  Cause and effect is not implied here, but a mutual simultaneous interaction is implied."

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen,  The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971), p. 171:
John von Neumann even argued [in Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics (1955)] that this cause-effect link “has certainly no other cause than the ‘law of large numbers’”, the justification being that “the apparent causal order of the world in the large … is completely independent of whether the natural laws governing the elementary processes are causal or not.”

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen,  The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971), p. 175f:
The point shines in Planck’s statement  that the principle of causality “is neither correct nor incorrect;  it is a heuristic principle; … it is the most valuable pointer that we possess … to find a path through the confusion of events.  … [Yet] Planck, after recognizing that causality is only a heuristic principle, let his inner convictions  sweep him away, and, without any ado, proclaimed that causality is “an almighty law  which governs the world”.

Without attempting to proselytize, let us merely here mention the Christian view that, indeed, an almighty law does govern the world, but that the relative ‘causal’ and ‘a-causal’ portions  remain to be determined. -- And notice the scheme of C.S. Lewis, whereby the Natural is wholly given over to the causal, whereas the a-causal (in the Newtonian/Laplacian sense) is confined to the Supernatural and… the Subnatural (the quantum).

Peter Geach, in Reason and Argument (1976, p. 3), urges "a threefold distinction: motives for belief, reasons for belief, causes of belief."

Mario Bunge, preface (1979) to third edition of Causality and Modern Science (1959; 1963):
Positivism had always denounced causality as a myth. … Causalism, the view that all relations among events except the purely spatio-temporal are causal, is surely untenable.

Ralph Grishman, Computational Linguistics (1986), p. 92: "the usual use of 'if A then B', which conveys some causal connections between A and B – so-called strict implication rather than material implication."

Gerd Gigerenzer et al, The Empire of Chance (1989), p. 71: "Such variation could mask the effects of the agencies under investigation." (agency = causal factor)

Gigerenzer et al, The Empire of Chance (1989), p.84: "To be a cause  generally means to make a difference."

Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance (1990), p. 123:
“The element in phrenological theory that mattered to statisticians  was that it created an argument to separate a penchant  from a determining factor.  The old slogan of Leibniz, ‘inclines without necessitating’, was given new application.”

Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance (1990), p. 130:
“Engel had argued: we have statistical regularity, but not law, hence no causes acting on individuals to determine suicides.”
Dagegen Wagner:
“Statistical homogeneity … can result only from causation.  No law can apply to an ensemble   unless there is a set of (deterministic) laws applying to the individuals.”

Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance (1990), p. 188:
“Pearson … testified to the correlation between the taming of chance  and the elimination of ordinary causality.”

17 XI 01 NYTimes: "Since Sept. 11, few phrases have become as familiar as "root causes." Forthright condemnations of the attacks have often been accompanied by assertions that, ultimately, the "root causes" of terror must also be addressed."

Steven Pinker,  The Blank Slate (2002), p. 32:
Behavior appears to have a different kind of trigger than other physical events.  Ordinary events have causes, but human behavior has reasons.

[continued here]

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