Causation Conundrum

“Causation is seriously weird” – has been a mantra since the earliest days of this blog. Even in 2005/6 I was wearily referring to causation being the issue “again”. And part of that is the weirdness of time itself and the tendency (!) for cause to precede effect. And that’s even with cause transmitted by forces between Newtonian billiard balls, or the sun rising over the gravitationally orbiting earth. Things only get weirder with quanta. I last riffed on the topic in the spring of this year, reacting to a whole conference on the processes of causation. At any level causation is little more than a metaphor for prediction based on experience. There really is no fundamental explanation available.

One need to get a handle on this basic, seemingly tangible and objective, if-this-then-that causation is because there plenty of knottier cases we also need to understand. Cases where we have emergent “objects” – complex systems with their own behaviours, behaviours which in turn “cause” effects in their component parts. Top-down, reverse or two-way causation. Chickens and eggs. Fundamental questions not just for physical (biological) evolution, but for individual consciousness and will, and for social systems of governance beyond the individual. Historically ancient philosophical concerns that still – unsolved – underlie everyday life in the 21st century.

So I was naturally interested in the Santa Fe Institute (SFI – 16 Nov 2017) news story advertising:

New paper answers causation conundrum.”

Which refers directly to …

Coarse-graining as a downward causation mechanism.”

… by SFI’s own Jessica Flack, published by The Royal Society in their Philosophical Transactions.

I particularly like the fact that despite a biological evolutionary context, it starts straight in with a self-evident social governance example. I really did write the paragraph above before opening the paper.

” … the idea that higher-level features can be a cause of behaviour by lower-level components.
On the one hand, this seems self-evident.
Governments make laws and laws constrain individual behaviour …”

I also like “coarse graining” as a handle. One of the things oft referred to in my earlier examples is that in settling on our metaphors for causation, we invariably aggregate effects at the current objects of interest. Like any ontology this is something deemed useful, nothing physically fundamental. A promising read. There’s a tremendous feeling of convergence in the air, of important ideas crystallising and coming together at last.

(Oh, and it gets better, the first two references are from Studies in the Philosophy of Biology by Donald T Campbell edited by Francisco Ayala, who I mentioned way back in 2004 in exactly this context, and who is linked with Francis Heylighen’s work. What goes around comes around. And the paper is Templeton funded!)


Also published on Medium.

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