Causality precedes prescription

Causality is how one thing gives rise to another. When someone kicks a ball, the causality behind the ball’s motion is clear – the force they exert on it.

You could argue that that’s not a sufficient explanation, that it neglects root causes and deals only with surface matters. Why, after all, did they decide to kick it? Suppose, in this case, they were angry about something – say being reprimanded at work by a colleague. So it’s the anger that causes the kick that creates the force that moves the ball, and therefore it’s the anger that causes the ball to move.

But what causes the anger? Being reprimanded. And why did that person reprimand them? It takes two to tango, so presumably it involves both of them – the first person doing something, like failing to meet a deadline, and a character trait of the second one that causes him to respond badly. So now you have two further causes, involving both parties, that caused the anger that caused the kick that moved the ball.

It’s simple to see where this is going. You can go further and further back, and you still won’t arrive at a root cause, that is, a cause whose cause you can’t probe deeper.

A cause is basically an answer to a ‘why’. Why did X happen? Because of Y. So, in terms of ‘why’s, the chain goes – why did the ball move? Because someone kicked it. Why did he kick it? Because he was angry. Why was he angry? Because a colleague reprimanded him. Why did that person reprimand him? Because he missed a deadline, and that person couldn’t control their anger. Why did he miss the deadline, and why did that person become angry about it? And so on, ad infinitum.

I doubt then, that you’d find root causes for anything. Newton himself could explain how gravity works, how masses attract one another, but he couldn’t explain why gravity exists. So when I use the word ’cause’ now, I mean first causes, rather than root causes, which I don’t think are obtainable.

Physical Causality

For physical phenomena, you can, with significant success, establish causality. The ball moves because of the force exerted on it by the human. And we’re confident that it is so, that it isn’t a coincidence, due to the machinations of some hidden being that contrives it so simply to delude spectators, such that when the human moves his foot and makes contact with it, the ball moves. The fact that you can predict the ball’s trajectory with precision based on a knowledge of the force exerted strengthens this assertion.

All the same, I could claim that no, it is in fact a hidden monster who moves the ball, who with extraordinary cunning just makes it seem to observers that the ball moves only when the human kicks it. It’s a popular low IQ tactic in arguments. You can always claim that your opponent can’t disprove your claim, of the existence of the hidden monster, and so you’re ‘not wrong’.

Obviously, the onus rests on the party making the claim to prove it’s claim. The hidden monster explains nothing because it’s a story weaved around a single fact, that the ball moves – akin to seeing a picture and imagining a story that could be behind it. The Newtonian explanation, on the other hand, not just explains that the ball will move, but also makes falsifiable predictions about how the ball will move. And finally, it’s simpler – in line with Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation, that explains all the facts without any unnecessary assumptions (like a hidden monster), is likely the truest one.

Take another example – the seasons and the movement of the planets. The gravitational forces of attraction do explain the trajectories of planets and the seasons. You can, of course, claim that it’s the workings of an invisible deity at play here, the way the Greeks explained autumn and winter, when the crops perished, as the time when Persephone was with Hades in the underworld, and spring and summer when she was reunited with her mother, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest.

The Greek stories, although nice and richly imagined, are just that – stories. You could excuse them – when you don’t have better explanations for a phenomenon, you do the best with what you can dream up – and even admire them for the intricacies and level of detail they went into. And though you can’t prove that Zeus and the gang don’t exist, and might even want them to be real, you hopefully wouldn’t take such explanations too seriously.

Physical phenomena, then, do have reasonable first causal explanations (planets move because of gravity, without getting into what causes gravity). Explanations might not exist for every phenomenon at present, but that’s likely to get better with time.

Human Causality

The question of establishing first causes for human actions is quite interesting. I specify first causes clearly – I make no pretensions whatsoever of getting into root or ultimate causes for human actions. Someone say, wants to get into private equity to make a lot of money quickly and retire, or become a bureaucrat for power and status – that’s a decent first causal explanation. It’s definitely not the only such explanation – there are countless other motivations – but it’s a possible one. Getting into why someone wants money or power means going beyond first causes, and that means an endless chain of ‘why’s.

When it comes to human phenomena, establishing first causes are difficult, let alone establishing root causes. A difference between human and natural phenomena, I think, is that the same action can have many varying causes. And the same causes can give rise to many different actions. One person feels angry so he picks a fight, another goes for a run, another plays the guitar, another takes a nap. Six different people feel bored – one goes to a bar, one reads a book, one plays video games, one plays a sport, one attends a concert, one watches a movie.

Can you ever then, look at a person and say – with certainty – ‘this’ is why he’s doing this? There are, of course, large areas you can generalize about quite accurately. Social media, for instance, being chiefly driven by attention or money or both, politics by material gain and power. What’s funny though, is that, attributing the motives of the general behaviour to a particular case of it rarely goes down well. Not many would admit they’re posting just for attention or monetization, though I think they’d accept that most people – excluding themselves, of course – have that motive.

Is it fair then, to claim to know the causality of the particular case? That is, the causality driving a specific action of a particular person? To say that this guy took this career path solely for money, or posted a pic on Instagram for attention, or works out for vanity, or does charity to feel better about himself, or some such thing. To do so might require knowing someone intimately, to accurately attribute a motive to them. Or a tremendous confidence in your opinions, to believe that what you think about them is true. Or simply an ignorance of your ignorance, not knowing that you don’t know, that there might be reasons other than what you imagine.

But simply because you can never be one hundred percent certain about something doesn’t mean you can’t take a stab at the most likely possibilities. Taking the counterview to its logical end, you merely arrive at the platitude that you should always give people the benefit of doubt – no matter how doubtful. If the bar for forming conclusions was being absolutely unmistaken, you’d never be able to conclude anything about anything.

You do risk being considered cynical if you value being correct over being charitable. It might be uncharitable, but the claim that attention seeking propels most of social media is, I think, closer to the truth, even if less magnanimous. Of course, you’re open to the counter of ‘how can you be sure?’ Which combines the mendacity of the ‘hidden monster’ that you can’t be sure doesn’t exist, with the banality of ‘always give the benefit of doubt’.

Causality and Prescription

Prescription is an even stronger assertion than causality. Causality is ‘he did X because of Y reason’. Prescription is ‘he should do Z instead of X’. Prescription is amusing, because it’s so ubiquitous, people so ready and willing to prescribe what someone else ought to be doing. Even the pesky neighbour, whose business it is none of, might be ready with unsought prescriptions. Perhaps it’s simply supply meeting demand – the commonest questions typically seek prescriptions – which career to follow, what to do to become rich or smart or fit.

Notwithstanding its utility, if any, I don’t think you can have any reasonable prescription until you establish causality. If I ask what career to pursue, until my ‘mentor’ knows what drives me, whether money or status or ‘meaningful’ impact or interesting work or maximum leisure, any advice I receive is blind; a generic prescription rather than a specific suggestion tailored for me. The ‘best’ workout routine for me would surely require knowing what exactly I want to achieve and what I’m willing to put in for it. The ‘best’ vacation, similarly, might depend more than a little on what I want from a vacation.

It is difficult, as I mentioned, to establish causality about others. You might not have sufficient data (or interest) to make a genuine inference. You can always ask a person, but then again, that depends on them accurately knowing their own causation, and, if so, telling you honestly. Either of which is rare, and the conjunction doubly so.

More useful though, than learning another’s causality, might be learning my own – the maxim of the Oracle, know thyself. Or as Marcus Aurelius put it in his MeditationsLearn to ask of all actions, “Why are they doing that? Starting with your own.

Before I can prescribe myself – or seek another’s prescription – I need to be clear, at least so far as I can be, about my own causality. And I think you can be – in Marcus Aurelius’ sense, of knowing ‘why I am doing that’. It’s a separate matter that I might not like the answer I find – such as, say, accepting that I post pictures or write simply for attention, or exercise out of vanity, or travel mainly to check off lists and say I’ve been, or read to appear smart. Whether the answer is palatable or not, it gives me a direction to work in – assuming that I don’t seek to suppress an unpalatable answer, doing which only leads me astray.