Difficult Concepts #2: Simple Causality In Humans Is Non-Existent

Part [part not set] of 3 in the series Difficult Concepts

Difficult Concept #2:

Linear single-factor causality in shared human activity is so rare it can be safely assumed to be non-existent.

"Because" is a word with astonishing power. Like most powerful things, it can lead us rapidly to joy and just as rapidly to grief.

In the mechanical world, the "becauses" are primarily linear — one right after the other from A to Z — and single-factor — one thing is moved and it moves another and that’s all there is to it.

It is, frankly, the tremendous appeal of that mechanical world, the way in which it seems to fit almost perfectly with the capabilities of our mind. It is part of the reducability of all machines, this linear single-factor way they work.

(aside for the pedant: not remotely every relattionship in every machine is single-factor and linear, that’s just a bridging metaphor that is useful because most of the machines most of us understand are that way.)

In the shared human world, though, such causal relationships are vanishingly unusual.

Let’s do linearity first, then we’ll tackle singularity.

Circular causality — more correctly spiral causality — is so old it has its own stupid jokes and sayings. "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" is a standard one.

The fact is neither the chicken nor the egg came first. The proto-chicken did, or the proto-egg. And before it? The proto-proto-chicken and the proto-proto-egg. This is spiral causality. A causes B causes A’ cause B’, and so on.

And this spiral causal loop reaches back in to the mists, to (current consensus) little packages of proteins assembled by chance across hundreds of millions of interactions.

There are other kinds of non-linear causes in human activity, too. To name three, there’s tipping point causality, momentum causality, and recovery causality. I’ll sketch each of these with just a one-tweeter.

Tipping point causality is when the causal factors have been exerting their force for a very long time to subtle effect, then seem to magically "tip over" and become an insurmountable causal force. "the straw that broke the camel’s back".

Momentum causality is when the primary factor in a given activity is nothing other than that we are going too fast to turn. We could change activity X to activity Y if we could just manage to stop activity X for a minute.

Recovery causality is when we do X to recover from a problem created by doing Y, even though we’re doing Y for no very good reason. (sometimes even though we don’t do Y anymore.)

(Those are just some of the ones I see most often that violate the kind of mechanistic linearity we see and manipulate most easily. And those are my half-assed words, not rigorous definitions.)

What about single-factor causation? Are the causes of shared human activity generally expressible in a single useful and manipulable way?

Well, we don’t even need the "shared" qualifier here. If you take even a modestly close look at the nearest person, you’ll see how many of her activities are driven by a single factor. "damned few." "Because"s are always aiming at why. Why did I do that? I just went out for a smoke in between tweets. Why did I do that?

Oh good lord, for a ton of reasons, including some of the non-linear causality we mentioned above.

Cuz i’m addicted? Cuz smoking is good for me? Cuz I am thinking hard? Cuz I always do that? Cuz physical patterns are a way to gain control over unruly mental life? Cuz it’s saturday? Cuz we don’t smoke in the house? Cuz cuz cuz cuz.

(that’s twice i’ve brought up that habit, I wonder if it will come up in every one of these? That’d be weird/cool/weird.)

Not gonna beat this particular horse further. Look at the two nearest people, yourself and someone else, you’ll find dozens of examples of behavior that is caused by multiple factors. If you’re stuck for a clue, look to the body, coming to a difficult concept near you.

So remember, these difficult concepts are difficult for me: irreducible, unready-to-me, unclosable-by-me. Instead, for each, I will just share a few applications, places where I have managed to remember and use the insight they stir and re-stir in me.

Application: when I am looking to foment change, I concentrate on creating rich narrative and relaxed charm. I shape the story, and I shape my telling of it.

Why? Narrative, story, has a kind of thickness to it that allows my listeners to pull from it causes that work for them where they are. It lets me make not a closing but an opening. Story is like thomas’s english muffins: it has nooks and crannies.

And the charm? Ahhh, well, among the least common listed causes of human activity is this one: I do a thing because someone I like says to try it. Here i’m singling out and emphasizing, though not relying on, one factor that’s very common and often underplayed.

Application: I resist grouping people who all do X into a group of people who all have cause Y. This is the most alluring to me of the errors I make when i’m frustrated by groups doing "a bad thing", so I have to remind myself constantly.

Why? Well. If individuals have multi-factor non-linear causes for their behavior, how much more so do groups? If I ascribe shared cause to shared activity, I seem to almost inevitably miss the boat.

(ed. Note: we do not follow this rule when we’re at the bar after work.)

It’s ridiculously common to say "they do that because X", though we almost always know that they do that for a lot of causes, and that those causes are widely varied amongst members of the group.

Application: I don’t argue much when I want actual change.

Now, I argue plenty when I want argument, which I greatly enjoy, don’t get me wrong. But arguing is about "reasons" and "words", and those two are not typically the standout causes for the activities I want to alter. Tho in argument we usually insist they are.

It’s not that "reasons" and "words" are never factors, they certainly can be. It’s that they’re usually overrated in proportion to their impact.

So. Difficult concept #2:

Linear single-factor causality is so rare in shared human activities it can be safely ignored.

We, I, behave how I do in any given instance because of a whole array of factors, in various proportions. When I forget that, of me, or of us, I step wrong.

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