Friday, August 5, 2011

Notes towards an eventual essay on Causality (ctd.)

 Of especial importance is the ability to distinguish  various sorts of structural or underlying or predisposing causes, from the immediate trigger of an event.  The former are important, and subject to systematic investigation;  the latter can be just about anything, yet it is this which fascinates the public, with unfortunate consequences.   A man bites down on a bad bagel, goes berseerk, slays six;  a flutter of Twitter swirls around the Bagel Problem, the National Association of Bagel Bakers weighs in;  eventually recipes are exchanged and everyone forgets the whole thing.   Or, a pupil violently allergic to peanuts breathes in a single molecule that may have floated in through an open window, and dies;  the grieving/thieving family sues the school, the town, the state, the USDA, with Mr. Peanut named as co-defendant;  and legislation is introduced (“Kaitlin’s Law”) requiring that all windows be closed at all times. 
The whole idea of the straw that broke the camel’s back, is that it was just a straw;  a bird alighting would have had the same effect; and neither would have had any effect at all had the camel not already been overloaded.   Yet it is this final straw that appeals to the concrete-particularity and sentimentality of a scientifically illiterate electorate.

Terms for this easily visualizable yet aetiologically secondary cause: trigger, tripwire, proximal cause, proximate cause… (more below); French détente, German Anlass.


David Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751):
Taste, as it gives pleasure or pain, and thereby constitutes happiness or misery, becomes a motive to action, and is the first spring or impulse to desire and volition.

William James, The Will to Believe and other essays (1897), p. 224:
In physiology…almost all causes… are forces of detent, which operate by simply unlocking energy already stored up.  …which "touches off" a train already laid.

Ward & Waller, eds. The Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. I:  From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance (1907):
The occasion of the institution of the Round Table [was] a quarrel for precedence among Arthur’s knights.

Mark Sullivan, Our Times V (1939), p. 59:
Louvain was the climax of Belgium, and Belgium the precipitant of American opinion."

Mario Bunge, Causality (1963):
In the case of the conditioned reflex ... the sound (stimulus or efficient cause) initiates or triggers, but does not produce, the entire process.

Wilfred Thesiger, The Marsh Arabs (1964), p.  194:
The low water of 1955 precipitated this mass migration to the towns, but did not cause it.

 (Reuters, 11 I 02) 
Auslöser der gegenwärtigen Spannungen war ein Anschlag auf das indische Parlament im Dezember, für den Indien extremistische Rebellen aus dem pakistanischen Teil Kaschmirs verantwortlich macht.

Washington Post, 8 V 10, re the recent glitch on Wall St:
The Dow Jones industrial average  plunger nearly 1,000 points in less than an hour … Federal officials [have] yet to pinpoint what tipped the first domino.  “You can’t trade that fast … without algorithmic trading… It wasn’t the cause, but it was the enabler.”

Gerd Gigerenzer et al, The Empire of Chance (1989), p. 279: "influenced only at one or two removes."

[Update 7 VIII 11], Re the night's rioting in Tottenham:
When you talk to the people here about what actually happened, they believe there was a simmering situation.
People are angry towards the police over the shooting of Mark Duggan on Thursday.
They believe it was unjustified and they don't believe the police story.
That was the touchpaper and what kicked off last night was, in their words, inevitable.


An antonym of trigger might be seed or germ.  It does not exactly 'cause' some result; it 'prepares the way' for it, or 'gives rise' to it.  Thus the embryo, and the man.

A remarkable case of very distant causal connection (if any) nevertheless results in manslaughter charges against scientists. (The victims victimize.)

[concluded here]

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