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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

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Human Beings Believe in Cause & Effect as a Survival Strategy

–by T.I. Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning & Communication

I was at a seminar recently, and they posed the following question: Suppose you are 2 metres away from a solid wooden fence with a small hole cut out in it. As you watch the hole, you see the head of a dog go by, and then you see the tail of a dog go by. You see this happen, say, three times in a row. What do you conclude?

The conclusions are less interesting, I think, than, the space of all possible conclusions. Intuitively, as human beings, we would think there is a RELATIONSHIP between the head and the tail of a dog. What are the possible types of relationships?

  • Causation. We might think that the head of a dog CAUSES the tail of a dog. This is perhaps the most powerful and most natural pattern of our human brain. We are always looking for cause and effect. But, depending on how much quantum mechanics you shoot into your veins, is causation really real or is it just a human construct? Consider how sure you are, as an individual, about all the causes and effects in your life and your surroundings. Are you sure about cause and effect?
  • Coincidence. It could be that the two events (sighting of dog head and sighting of dog tail) simply were because of random chance. If we watched longer, we might see something else. How often do we mistake coincidence with cause and effect?
  • Correlation. It could be that the head of a dog is correlated with the tail of a dog, in the sense that they “arise together” on a common but not causal basis. Correlation is a powerful concept in statistics, where it suggests that two events happen often together but not because one necessarily causes the other.
  • Parts of a Whole. This is the “true” answer for the dog sighting; a dog head and a dog tail are parts of a whole that we see through the fence. Thus, there is no real cause and no correlation and no coincidence; we are simply observing two instances of some common underlying connection – that a living dog’s body has both a head and a tail.

In physics, we rely on this set of approaches. We worry about whether we have established causality, correlation, coincidence, or parts of a whole. When we measure a frequently occurring set of “particle debris” after a collision of two particles, we wonder if the collision “caused” the debris or if the debris actually reflects “part of a whole.” We apply rigorous statistical cross-checks and tests to assure ourselves that we have “watched long enough” to be confident (in a quantitative fashion) about our interpretation.

It is in this same realm that we often run into the confusion of pseudo-science that tries to pin everything on cause and effect or something else entirely. Pseudo-science almost always boils down to someone claiming cause and effect, where what they might be really be observing is simply an unexamined or unexplained relationship between two events or two occurrences. Part of the job of science is to provide a systematic methodology to tease out what these relationships are. In fact, science is aimed at mastering these observed relationships so that we can make “predictions.”

But why do humans love cause and effect so much? It certainly seems “easy to understand.”

I propose a somewhat silly response, perhaps based on Dawkins or Gould or Pinker. Cause & effect is the most precautionary approach for human beings wandering in the wild trying to survive predators, hunger, and other hazards. For instance, if you see the paw prints of a roaming tiger, the best survival strategy is to assume that a tiger caused those prints and you should get going in the other direction. A scientist might want to stop and consider whether the prints were fresh, whether they fit the characteristics of the tiger you saw yesterday, and so forth. But a human brain focused on survival is optimized for making quick calculations using the cause & effect principle to save its own skin.

So, take a look around you and your world. In how many ways and in how many places do you see that we rely on cause & effect as an explanation because it is convenient?

Moreover, what other categories of relationship do you see? And what experiments would you conduct to help separate out these types of relationships?

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6 Responses to “Human Beings Believe in Cause & Effect as a Survival Strategy”

  1. Gavin Flower says:

    Hmm..

    You missed some other possibilities…

    You assume the head & tail belong to the same animal that is a dog, for your ‘True’ answer.

    It could be that any number of different dogs going past. The first dog has its head up far enough to be seen. Then zero or more dogs go past with their heads below the hole – ignoring cats, hens, and other sundry creatures going past below the level of the hole! Then a dog goes by with its head down and its tail up. Assuming of course that you have correctly identified that the head and tail seen are as they seem… And/or you have not been selective in reporting your observations: did you note the number of legs seen, heads of human children, not to mention low flying birds and A380′s, …!

    You could be relating to virtual or pseudo dogs, or simply making the whole thing up! Obviously, the correct interpretation depends on how many Higgs particles exist, whether you in believe in the same number of Gods that I do – and more importantly, do you think the English soccer team has a good chance of winning the next World Cup! :-)

    • TRIUMF says:

      Well said! There are many assumptions that we make as humans…that things that happen near each other are somehow connected! Thanks… I love pseudo-dogs.

  2. [...] Quantum Diaries. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:Like Loading… This entry was posted in Philosophy, Physics, Science and tagged Pseudo-science by sunggikim. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  3. Thank you for sharing your info. I truly appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your next write ups thanks
    once again.

  4. Gordon Munro says:

    Alas retired from teaching critical thinking college class, so cannot show this minor gem to students.

  5. Egbert says:

    Thank you for this inspiration! You know that many humans project actions to what may happen in the future. And then start to act according to their future expectations or assumptions. So this acting has a cause in the virtual projected future. Could one say that ambition is caused by future results?

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