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The Challenge Of Causation

An insightful piece by Jonah Lehrer on the challenge of causation. Despite all of our fancy tools and computers, we’re still trying to figure out how X relates to Y.

This assumption—that understanding a system’s constituent parts means we also understand the causes within the system—is not limited to the pharmaceutical industry or even to biology. It defines modern science. In general, we believe that the so-called problem of causation can be cured by more information, by our ceaseless accumulation of facts. Scientists refer to this process as reductionism. By breaking down a process, we can see how everything fits together; the complex mystery is distilled into a list of ingredients. …

The problem with this assumption, however, is that causes are a strange kind of knowledge. This was first pointed out by David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher. Hume realized that, although people talk about causes as if they are real facts—tangible things that can be discovered—they’re actually not at all factual. Instead, Hume said, every cause is just a slippery story, a catchy conjecture, a “lively conception produced by habit.” When an apple falls from a tree, the cause is obvious: gravity. Hume’s skeptical insight was that we don’t see gravity—we see only an object tugged toward the earth. We look at X and then at Y, and invent a story about what happened in between. We can measure facts, but a cause is not a fact—it’s a fiction that helps us make sense of facts.

The truth is, our stories about causation are shadowed by all sorts of mental shortcuts. Most of the time, these shortcuts work well enough. They allow us to hit fastballs, discover the law of gravity, and design wondrous technologies. However, when it comes to reasoning about complex systems—say, the human body—these shortcuts go from being slickly efficient to outright misleading.

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Jonah Lehrer is the author of the soon-to-be-released Imagine: How Creativity Works, How We Decide, and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.