My problem with causation

February 4, 2010

The older I get, the more doubts I have about causation.  Honestly, I have no idea how I got here.  My past is a series of wonderful accidents.  The future, mine and everyone’s, is an impenetrable mystery.  The only certainty is surprise.

Scientists and philosophers have relied on two methods to infer a relationship of cause and effect:  induction and deduction.  Both are riddled with problems.

Induction assumes we can make a prediction from past events:  because X smiles warmly, treats me with kindness, and is solicitous of my wellbeing, I imagine he feels affection for me – he’s a friend.  But long ago Hume demonstrated the logical flaw in this assumption, which Karl Popper called, appropriately enough, the problem of induction.

Past regularities, it turns out, lack the force of necessity.  The most ancient repetition may not repeat again.  My friend X may be an excellent con artist.

In Fooled by Randomness, N. N. Taleb tells the story of how the problem of induction ceases to be a philosophical puzzle and collides with reality – with life.  His world is peopled by “fools of randomness” who gamble on some regularity and “blow up” when they smack into a surprise.

On a large scale, such events are necessarily rare but devastating.  I suspect they occur far more frequently on a smaller scale.  We make bets on the past repeating itself, and are shocked when a random future arrives.  We drive to a familiar address that has been demolished; we find our favorite movie star suddenly a bore; we reach for a lover who is no longer there.

The other method, deduction, assumes we can predict consequences by means of logical analysis.  But logic is a machine which needs fuel to get anywhere; in Hans Reichenbach’s term, it is “empty.”  Logic can transfer propositions believed to be true along a chain of analysis, but it can’t produce truth.  The fuel of logic – the propositions on which it must run – must be distilled from observation and induction.

Hume’s problem of induction thus defeats deduction as well.

The question may well be asked whether morality can survive without causation – whether our actions lose their moral agency if their effects are unknown.  But I don’t see why this should follow.  The world of my doubts isn’t demoralized, just massively uncertain.

I am a cause in the world as well as an effect, moving in time with billions of other persons, alive and dead, each also a cause and an effect:  a fantastically complex matrix of interactions which includes my internal states – my desires and moral beliefs – no less than those of others.  How this works has best been explained by Alicia Juarrero, who calls it “dynamic systems theory.”  It is, on principle, unpredictable.

Only a consequentialist, who believes an action can be judged only by its effects, will be troubled by this.  But consequentialism requires pre-existing moral rules to judge the consequences:  it’s fatally flawed as theory of moral judgment in any case.

Morality isn’t about consequences, because these are often unknown or unintended.  Morality is about traditions of right and wrong behavior forged and tested in the tangled matrix of causation, and so to a significant degree selected by the community, over the centuries, as the necessary pillars of its way of life.

I can be moral and ignorant of consequences.  I can be moral and uncertain.  In truth, only fools and prigs would expect anything else.

My doubts, then, are not the seeds of some doctrine of radical skepticism.  I preach nothing new.  Every decision, whether moral or prudential, always carried a load of uncertainty – mine, for reasons that are themselves uncertain, has just grown heavier with time.