Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Idea of Cause

by Richard Crews
Two events or observations are commonly thought to have a cause-and-effect relationship if they have two characteristics: (1) if they have temporal and spacial proximity and (2) if there is a logical expectation of the dependent exchange of physical energy between them. In other words, one event is thought to have caused another if they are near to one another (in space and time) and it seems reasonable to believe that changes in one of them brought about changes in the other.

There are four possible explanations for an apparent cause-and-effect relationship.

One is the PHYSICS explanation--that the cause-and-effect relationship can be explained according to generally accepted physics principles such as gravity, electromagnetism, momentum, entropy, etc. This is commonly considered the strongest kind of explanation; for some people it is the only "real" or acceptable explanation, the only allowable exception being that we do not have enough information to understand the physics explanation.

Another is the MAGIC explanation (also called miraculous, mystical, or metaphysical). In this case the requirement for temporal and spacial proximity and exchange of physical energy may be suspended, but there must be a strong symbolic or ideological connection between the two events or observations.

A third is the PSYCHOLOGY explanation. Essentially, at its core, this claims the events or observations seem related in a cause-and-effect way because of misperception or miscognition.

And finally there is the ANTHROPOMORPHISM explanation, that there is a pre-eminence or dominance of consciousness over the physical realm. This is the "mind over matter" perspective in our day-to-day world, and the Anthropic Principle in cosmology.

It would be comfortable and convenient if everything had a PHYSICS explanation. Unfortunately this is not the case.

The most reputable examples of events or observations that defy a PHYSICS explanation are found in the world of quantum mechanics. Tiny subatomic particles have been studied carefully and been found to have numerous characteristics and behaviors which they simply "cannot" have according to well understood principles of physics. For example, a particle can be in two different places at the same time; it can move from one place to another without going through the intervening space; it can affect another distant particle without any connection or communication between them; etc. Such events or observations are generally written off as obeying laws of physics that we do not (yet) understand, and that, in any case, apply only on very small scales of size.

Perhaps the most incredible observation in the quantum mechanical world is that some entities or their various properties do not appear--that is, they do not exist--until they are observed. Thus a ray of light may have been emitted billions of years ago, but it manifests itself either as a particle or a wave depending on how it is observed--and each of these kinds of manifestations has properties that are incompatible with the other. Moreover, whichever manifestation we choose to look for and therefore to find, the other can never reappear. The verbal formulation for this phenomenon is that the entity initially exists only as a probability wave and that this probability collapses into one manifestation or the other.

In addition to quantum mechanics, in cosmology there are also strange occurrences that defy logical, PHYSICS explanations. For example, there are a dozen or more physics constants such as the speed of light, the strength of gravity, and the fine structure constant for which there seems to be no reasonable explanation as to why they are exactly the strengths or values that they are, but if they were even a tiny fraction of a percent different, reality as we know it (including the existence of atoms and planets and life and thinking) would not exist. The Universe is some 13.7 billion years old, and these physics straight-jackets seem to have been built into the Universe from the beginning so that now, 13.7 billion years later, human beings are able to exist and to wonder about them.

When these incredible coincidences were first considered seriously by the theoretical physics community, the phrase "Anthropic Principle" was coined to deal with them. The Anthropic Principle has two forms, the "strong" Anthropic Principle which postulates that in some way the future existence of human beings was planned for in the earliest thin slivers of a second after the Big Bang, the instant in which the Universe was created. Because this seemed too theological for the science of physics to swallow, another form of the Anthropic Principle, the "weak" form, was coined. The Weak Anthropic Principle postulates that we see these impossibly focused and refined physics constants the way that they are simply because if they were any other way, we would not be here observing and wondering about them. This is a statistical explanation rather than a metaphysical one.

However, possibilities that are very unlikely--that is, that are statistical rarities--only occur in very large samples. Hence a theory of "multiverses," that there are many--perhaps essentially an infinite number--of universes; ours is one which happened to come out just right to generate life.

By the way, such "theories" as these of Anthropic Principles or Multiverses are not truly scientific theories because they cannot be tested experimentally. Rigorous scientific thinking demands that for a theory to be considered truly scientific, it must be (among other requirements) falsifiable, that is, there must be ways of testing it or experimenting to find out if it is really true. For ideas such as the Anthropic Principles or Multiverses, there are none--at least no one can think of any.

MAGICAL or miraculous explanations are considered all to easy--fanciful and imaginary--by serious thinkers. They are always available--they can be coined and modified as needed. They serve no useful purpose except to ease ones mind--which, in a painful and worrisome world may not be trivial, but it is not useful for advancing ones understanding and adaptive skills.

PSYCHOLOGICAL explanations, that is ones that depend on misperception and miscognition, are also all too easy to postulate. However, unlike MAGICAL explanations, some PSYCHOLOGICAL explanations can be studied and tested experimentally. Thus, for example, the hypothesis that certain people are likely to be biased against certain racial or ethnic groups and to suspect individuals of those groups of malevolence or criminal intent, can be tested via questionnaires or experiments in a behavioral laboratory.

However, PSYCHOLOGICAL explanations are often used as a wastebasket for findings that defy PHYSICS explanations. Thus, for example, the apparent healing effects of homeopathy are often dismissed as psychological bias (or "placebo effects") because the findings of homeopathy run counter to--in fact, contradict--known, established principles in physics, chemistry, and physiology. On the other hand, people--like myself--who have extensive, personal, empirical experience with the healing effects of homeopathy are confronted with a paradox: homeopathy cannot be explained according to the known, established laws of physics--in fact, it violates and contradicts them--and the effects are not due to PSYCHOLOGICAL misperceptions or miscognitions--yet they truly occur.

Ideas about cause (and effect) are a slippery and foggy set of concepts. Our effective manipulation of reality often hides among them.