10 April 2009

Bernard Questions the Direction of Causality

Bernard got right to it. “Do you suppose that we’ve got causality backwards?”


“Well, we think that the event that comes before causes the event to follow.”

“Ah. You are talking about the hic hoc postal ergo hoc fallacy?” I said, proud that I’d remembered this from my philosophy class.

Bernard frowned. “You mean post hoc ergo propter hoc?” he queried. “Since an event follows another it must have been caused by it?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said. Suddenly drawing a complete blank on what I’d just said or how I had pronounced it. “Isn’t that what I said?”

“Sort of,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “But no, that is not what I am talking about.”

“Oh,” I said in what I hoped was an intelligent tone.

“I’m talking about something broader than that. We know that just because an event comes before another it did not necessarily cause it. But we also know that cause comes before effect. We know that if something did cause something else, it always happens first. But what if that is not the case?”

“What?” I asked, baffled.

“Well, look at it like this. All your life you have seen wind blow. You know that when things move, the movement comes from being pushed, being blown away. And then one day someone turns on a vacuum cleaner and now things don’t move because they are blown away. They move because they are sucked in. In our models of the world, causality is blown away from the cause, comes after. But maybe effects are sucked towards the cause, effects come before.”

“Got it.” I thought. But was not sure.

“Well what if causality were like that? What if the past didn’t cause things? What if the future were the cause of things? We get sucked towards a future rather than caused by our past?”

“Are you arguing for predestination?”

“No. I think that the future has infinite options. It is just that we’re pulled forward by these possible futures.”

“But you have to admit that some things are caused by past events. A boy sets a fire and the hillside erupts into flames. The event before caused the wildfire after. Right?”

“What if that is simply a failure of imagination? The past event causes the next because it came before? The invention of the telegraph, for instance. You think that was caused by what came before? Or do you think that it was caused by a possibility – what came after?”

“So, you think that the notion of causation ought to be replaced by the notion of possibility? Or you really saying that causation works from the future to the past?”

“I’m really saying that the two ideas are the same. Current events are caused by future possibility. I think that we keep looking into the past to see the cause and we should be looking to the future.”

“Bernard,” I rubbed my forehead. “Some days you give me a headache.”

“It’s probably low blood sugar. Here,” he handed me the menu. “Order something to eat. You’ll feel better.”

The prospect of food did make me feel a little better. Maybe his notion of causation was worth considering. Did the hunger cause me to order or did the prospect of food cause me to order? Wait. Just as it seemed that Bernard was starting to make sense, I lost it again.

Bernard smiled. “You think I might be on to something?”

“Yes Bernard, I do think that you might be on something.” And then I looked for our waitress.

"'Hip hop, postal hick,' fallacy" Bernard shook his head disgustedly. "It wouldn't surprise me if someday you get a recall notice from your alma mater, asking you to send your degree back."


Lifehiker said...

Ron, I'll vouch for you. Not to worry about that diploma...

Very interesting thoughts about causality. Sometimes it does seem like the future is pulling, but I think new knowledge pushes. People love to identify, and then solve, problems.

Anonymous said...

My present causes me headaches.

Gypsy at Heart said...

The thing about posts like these is that you can't help but pay attention because they force you to it. Kind of like sucking you into thinking matters the like of which you hadn't even anticipated. Wait! That's not true. I come to this blog specifically to tax my gray cells. Ergo, it is the prospect of posts like these that make me come here. Ron, you are deliberately causing me to read your blog. How insidious.