It is very human to confuse correlation with causation. Also very human to project order onto random events. Sometimes you just have to accept that something is happening – the search for a reason will always be in vain.
This view within science was famously formulated by the English logician Bertrand Russell when he said: “The law of causality … is a relic of a bygone age”.
Russell spoke about basic physics: The laws of nature tell us how things are, not why things are. But his comment serves as a general warning against seeing cause and effect where there is none.
Russell was ahead of his time in many ways, but ironically some philosophers believe that what really belongs to “a bygone age” is a general disinterest among scientists in trying to understand fundamental causes, including what forces of nature like gravity and magnetism has brought into operation. “The reason physics stopped looking for causes is because such things actually don’t exist,” Russell said.
Just why physicists might have less tolerance for causality talk than philosophers might have something to do with temperament. Scientists prefer to focus on questions that have definite answers. As for the other crowd? “We will be here for 5,000 years without any answers to philosophy,” famous physicist Brian Cox once scathingly remarked.
Dealing with the nature of causes means answering some strange questions. For example, how can a present that exists owe its existence to a past that does not exist? Is reverse causation possible?
Alison Fernandes, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, is part of a brave group of academics trying to provide answers. She is co-director of the wonderfully named Irish Society for the Philosophy of Time and says thinkers in the field generally take either a “physics-based” approach to causality or an “agent-based” approach.
Broadly speaking, the former attempts to explain how causes work under the laws of physics, effectively challenging Russell in his own territory. The latter sidesteps direct confrontation and seeks to connect causality with logic by examining how humans or “agents” use causes to ensure desired outcomes.
Fernandes defends this “agent-based” approach, acknowledging that “causality does not receive much mention in candidates for fundamental physical theories”. However, she says there are at least two good reasons to believe causality can be explained scientifically.
“First, oddly enough, pretty much every science that isn’t fundamental physics, including much of physics itself, is neck-deep in causal talk. Biologists are interested in uncovering causal mechanisms. Chemists are interested in the causes of given reactions. If we think that different sciences are related, then apparently we should be able to explain how causal relationships in science arise scientifically from sciences that don’t mention causality.
“Second, it has long been argued that causal relationships are essential for choosing effective strategies. Suppose you know that health insurance and longer life are related. That’s not enough to tell you whether health insurance is a useful tool for prolonging your longevity – you need to know whether health insurance makes people live longer, or if the two are just correlated – by, for example A higher standard of living means people are both getting health insurance and living longer.
“It is plausible to think that the difference between events that are merely correlated or causally linked is something that science informs us about – and therefore what causality is should be explicable in scientific terms.”
So how can cause and effect be determined scientifically through human reasoning?
Fernandes cites the example of Tamsin, who stays dry in a downpour because she decided to take an umbrella with her. We can say that one caused the other when there is “good evidence” based on probable outcomes.
“By proof, I don’t just mean that Tamsin thinks she’ll stay dry if she decides to take her umbrella with her. I mean that her decision actually increases the chance that she will stay dry – so even someone watching her situation would know that if she decides to take her umbrella, she’s more likely to stay dry.”
Let’s say Tamsin continued to take her umbrella every time it rained and that she continued to stay dry every time. This could potentially lead them to conclude that their decision to take an umbrella was the cause of rain. How would we know that such reasoning was flawed?
“Not all correlations are causal. In Tamsin’s case, she might notice that it’s always raining when she takes her umbrella. But this correlation will only be considered causal if Tamsin can use this correlation to increase the likelihood of the outcomes she is seeking in a reasonable way of reasoning,” explains Fernandes.
“There’s something downright inappropriate about Tamsin contemplating taking her umbrella to make rain when she already has evidence it’s going to rain.”
Now you may think that life is too short to worry about such things, but then 1. you are reading the wrong newspaper column and 2. you have not considered the risks involved in seeking a scientific one giving up the basis for causality. Presenting all causes as somehow “unprovable” plays into the hands of those who want to convince us that facts are just opinions and the truth is what you want it to be.
The division between physicists and philosophers on this issue also underscores the role of intellectual temperament in scientific debate.
Studies show that mathematicians and physicists are the most atheistic of all academics, and coincidentally, a “first cause” in basic physics would leave a ray of hope for the possibility of a universal Creator or God. Might this tendency towards atheism help explain physicists’ reluctance to see beyond the curtain of causality?
Fernandes wants to avoid pitting one group of academics against one another, but says: “Philosophers have long been concerned with how much our picture of the world depends on how the world itself is, and how much is shaped by our perspective on the world.”
“A similar debate occurs in the case of time and causality – how much of the way time and causality are and appear to us is due to properties of the world, and how much is due to us and how we move in engage in the world? Typically, the world-based approach has been associated with a scientific mindset and the search for a physically-based picture of the world.
“Conversely, the agent-based approach has sometimes been associated with a quasi-religious view where we expect the world to be ‘made for us’ or structured to reflect divine action. But I don’t think these associations are correct.
“If we look at things from a scientific point of view, it should be obvious that how we see the world and how we think is profoundly shaped by our relationships with it. There is no ‘view out of nowhere’ from which to observe the world.”