What is causation and causality?
What causes you a pain in the neck or backside is important. So ‘cause‘, ‘causation‘ and ‘causality‘ should be important to everybody! But these words don’t mean exactly the same thing, though they sit in relation to each other. Who said this? I did! And you bet – I see these concepts pretty differently to ‘everybody’ else – but some of my thinking is shared by a minority of others. I do not need support of ‘herds’. Sure – I’ve read up on the stuff. But I’m not a regurgitator. I’m not just one of those people who will pick things off the net and go, “Well Professor Blogs says – so there!“.
Context is ‘everything’. Why or how is this topic important? It is because the human mind is ‘hard wired’ for meaning. That’s part of our psychoevolution (for those who believe in evolution). We survived because our brains (minds) were able to make sense of the world and react appropriately – to preserve the existence of our species. Other lifeforms do the same. However, human beings to that by a set of different processes e.g. cognitive, affective and behavioural.
Cognition is a most important part of managing more complex worlds of information that lower animals do not have to cope with. The human mind has to balance facts, figures, ideas, perceptions, complex situations and cope with language. Affective (emotional) and behavioural responses do no work well in a complex world.
People want to know why and how things happen – good things and bad things. Good luck is a nice thing – and we naturally want more of it – bad luck; the opposite. But if outcome can be made advantageous overall by some structure or process, we would want that. Humans do that my a process of analysis of information.
The fundamental questions or ‘how’ and ‘why’ are rooted in a causal world. Once we find a sequence that produces ‘good’, we have found a causal chain or explanation. Then we can test and repeat. Explanation provides a degree of comfort. The unexplained is intolerable.
However, sequences and chains – if discovered – may not remain stable in a dynamic and complex system with multitudes of factors. This is the nature of chaos – and chaos is part of our evolution too. It is important to identify chaotic systems and understand that any supposed causal chain may break down. The contributory factors may take different weightings, may interact differently or change entirely. Adaptation to those sort of situations requires a high level of vigilance, receptivity and willingness to adapt/ change.
In other words whilst ‘causality’ may work most of the time, it can fail in complex dynamic systems.
Science generally does not like ‘acausality’. But science has seen limitations of causality in quantum physics. Strange things happen in a quantum world, that seem to have no cause and no explanation e.g. particles can come out of nowhere for example and disappear into nowhere.
As some people will have a hard time working out where this is going, the clickable flow chart below gives an outline. At the end I confront predictability and preventability. This post became stimulated by tragic events earlier in 2020, when a child was stabbed in a park.
I see cause as a deep and close influence of one thing on another – not needing to be a perfect or absolute influence. The simplest example is one billiard white ball striking another red ball and ‘causing‘ the red one to move. Within that system of two balls, the white ball is the cause of red’s movement. It seems obvious and simple, but there are some hidden assumptions in there. Huh!? I’ve assumed that there was not another unobserved force that also moved red along e.g. somebody tilting the whole room containing the table, or a puff of air from somewhere. Those might be co-incident causes if they existed. But note that the original conclusion devoid of any other influences, was that white caused red to move. Of course the arm that moved the pool cue was part of the chain but that’s in the territory of causation.
To be truly able to say with confidence ‘white moved red’, I should have ruled out coincident effects. Of course, life is not simple like that – you see it happen and you don’t have time to set up a laboratory to check for other coincident causes. The system on a billiard table is simple so no hard work required.
When one is dealing with a more complex system coincident effects need to be searched for an ruled out. Stepping out of the constraint of the two balls as a system, I also need to know that there was no external effect affecting both balls at the same time. In more complex systems or those that may be interrelated, the appearance of cause could just be correlation or association. In the latter one ‘object’ isn’t truly influencing the other. But an even deeper assumption was made – that the red ball moved after it was struck by white. Yes – that simple temporal sequence is important in determining cause.
This is the study or constituents of cause. Some of that appeared above. Causation may be differently conceptualised in law and in physics, though there may be many shared constituents. Yes – the law operates a bit differently from physics.
This is a far deeper set of concepts from the above two. It digs deep into the fabric of space, time and mathematical constructions of the universe. But if you’re a simpleton, you simply jump on Wikipedia and find that they say the three things are basically the same. Hey – I’m not here to tell people what to believe or how close to reality they should get. If people want life ‘simple’ – that’s totally fine.
Acausality (non-linear causality)
As briefly mentioned above there are aspects of our world that simply do not have discoverable causal explanations – or there may be weak group of causal factors with no one dominant factor. Where there are dominant factors, it is risky for outcomes to focus primarily on strong factors, whilst ignoring weak factors. In stock markets for example there may be hundreds of dynamic factors anyone time. It’s impossible to know more than a small handful at any one time. Predominantly successful methodologies for extracting profit are not perfect and may begin to fail more often or more severely.
The Search for Meaning
I can’t really debate this but the human being is genetically and psychologically ‘hard-wired’ for causal connections. Caveman (or woman) would have observed that lions are dangerous. Lions are a cause of death – it’s that simple. Avoiding being eaten by lions was a good idea. Causality was terribly important for the survival of our species.
In the world of health problems, ‘everybody’ is searching for the root cause or causes of some illness. And for sure, science will find a few. But root causes fail miserably on explaining mental health issues. Why? Because often times the root causes can’t be found scientifically. Stop! I’m not talking about theories on dopamine and 5HT etc. And I don’t wish to embark on a lecture of neuronal pathways and interplays of myriads of subtypes of receptors and transporters etc.
Someone in the back of my mind is banging with that question, “But surely trauma is a cause of mental illness?” Yes – it is but it does not explain why some people don’t become mentally ill after suffering some pretty appalling traumas, or why some who experience relatively minor traumas become very ill. ‘A cause’ is not ‘the cause’. Nonetheless, people will search their memories for things that are of ‘causal significance’ to them – that something or things that explain why they are the way they are. Did I say that was wrong? I did not! The bottom line is that when people find the root cause from their search for meaning, they are still often time stuck. How? They simply cannot unravel the past and put it back together. They may spend years trying. I know of one case where a woman was ripped off of £500,000 over two decades trying to unravel her past in therapy – and got nowhere.
Just to be 100% clear, I am not saying that therapy and counselling are bad. This post is about how the sense of causality drives people in various directions. Most people will have great difficulty in accepting that there were no causes of their mental sufferings. I’m not here to make such an assertion. In like manner people search for the root cause of our existence and invoke the existence of God etc – i.e. there has to be an explanation – and explanation is heavily comprised of causal thinking.
In complex systems where all or some causes or their weightings cannot be known with certainty, frameworks emerge to create explanations. These are constructs in our minds. We cannot know whether or to what extent in the real, world frameworks truly operate – or whether our frameworks which worked at some point will continue to work.
In these sort of scenarios, there should be a readiness to change frameworks, if something is going wrong i.e. when previous good framework is no longer efficient or causing unbearable risk.
I’m sure somebody out there wants a list of causes or categories of causes. I couldn’t care less. Two ways of thinking about cause that are useful to me, are what’s referred to as ‘linear causality‘ and ‘non-linear causality‘. To avoid confusion, the people who wrote and thought about these things took ‘causality’ to be both ’cause’ and ‘causation’. So I’ll run with that for the moment. [But for absolute clarity I don’t see causality as simple ’cause’ or ‘causation’]
This is pretty easy. It’s like with the billiard balls and one player poking one ball at a time.
This is complex – like having several players poking at hundreds of balls on a massive billiard table at the same times or different groups of them taking turns at the same time. Some of the players decide to have a punch up on or at the side of the table too. All that is called chaos. Many balls will drop into holes for sure – but working out which player or players were responsible is near impossible, though clearly there is emergence of effect (balls dropping into holes). Yes – each player who hits a ball is responsible for some degree of linear causality. But what they final outcome of his ‘contribution’ would be is pretty impossible to work out.
Where do we commonly find non-linear causality? Right under your nose! Yes – you the human being – the human body – it’s physiology, biochemistry and neurology – are all in a non-linear state of chaos. Oh yes – but we do find emergent order out of all that. The electrical impulses generated by zillions of neurons firing in the brain all at once with numerous faciliatory and inhibitory pathways – with zillions of chemical reactions going on at every level – all produce an emergent thing called thought – or speech – or action.
And right under your nose could be an ugly virus like COVID-19. How was it created? How did it evolve? All that is the emergence of numerous iterations of non-linear causal interactions. How does it spread? You’re a simpleton if you think that it’s just about somebody inhaling a few virus particles from the person across the room sneezing into the room i.e. you’re hooked on linear causality.
An example of how non-linearity may operate is shown below. This is not advice and ought not to be used in any similar case. (No liabilities accepted). It does not refer to the case that stimulated this post or any other.
Action and Inaction
If one looks at linear and non-linear causality, nested in there is ‘action‘ i.e. balls being struck, which then hit other balls etc. In complex scenarios usually in the human domain, what’s not often seen easily is ‘inaction‘ or omission. This is about failure to act. The issue comes up regularly in mental health homicide and suicide inquiries and court proceedings e.g.
- failure to assess properly
- failure to treat or respond properly
- failure to monitor and supervise properly
- failure to detain or limit when necessary
- failures of communication and coordination
- failures of risk control
There is of course a longer list. All of the above meant that actions which should have been taken (properly), were not. So the absence of action, then becomes a visible and tangible ingredient in a causal analysis. This is where the concept of legal causation comes in because it rests within the concept of negligence as a legal concept (not mere carelessness as a lay concept).
Negligence in law – a tort – is comprised of four main things (among many other important issues):
- Duty of care
- Breach of duty of care.
- Claimant’s loss was caused by the breach of duty
- The loss fell within the defendant’s scope of duty and was a foreseeable consequence of the breach of duty.
This is not a tutorial on negligence. The main point here is ‘failure to discharge a duty’ i.e. a failure to perform a duty. So this is how legal causation differs quite significantly from causation in science and mathematics.
Out of the duty of care, would have been a range of ‘actions’ designed to control risk or adverse consequences. Nobody is saying that these have to be perfect. The carrying out of the actions arising from duty, means that the probability of a bad outcome is reduced – that’s why these actions are needed. But now, we see that the failure to act then becomes causative – it takes on a salience and importance that cannot be avoided (except by the most ignorant of people, obviously).
I have always asserted that nothing in this world is predictable. That seems like a bold statement to make when every day people predict that the sun will rise in the East or that ‘Winter is coming’. The idea that something is predictable, is based on a belief – likened to the billiard balls on a table – that if you get the angle and force right on the shot you can get the second ball into the hole. This is linear causality. But even on a billiards table – there are subtle imperfections and variations that add to non-linearity, and that’s what leads to variations. A slight unseen glitch in the chalk on a tip of a cue can lead to a sequence where the second ball misses the hole.
What people often take as ‘predictable’ is really probability. Well established patterns make for sense of predictability. However, that is really about probability of outcome. So winter happening every year has a high probability based on well established patterns. Nobody really cares if I predicted that ‘Winter is coming 5 years from now’ – it’s so well known a pattern.
If however, I say person X has a high probability of sticking a knife into somebody within the next 5 years, now that becomes interesting. But that’s not a prediction at all, even if a knife does end up in somebody somewhere along the way to 5 years. The idea of predictability is really about how well human beings appreciate the probability of an outcome.
Now because there will be problems with ‘prediction’ in complex scenarios, the issue is whether an outcome can be prevented. The short answer is yes. But before that the question ‘Can something be prevented?‘, leads to a binary answer i.e. ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In non-linear scenarios where there are probabilities the answer is more about the impact of actions taken to prevent. Locking up the potentially knife wielding person for life in a high security prison, contains the risk and prevents knives being stuck into other people. But life is not so simple. Not everybody who has some (serious) risk of sticking a knife into another person, can be locked away.
When managing people who are at some risk of using knives on others – say in a community setting – the issue is about dealing with co-causal factors which may precipitate a high risk situation. Note that risk is a probability of adverse outcome. So, managing those co-causal factors in a non-linear situation is of the utmost importance. All of that ‘risk management’ requires:
- A high degree of awareness.
- Good degrees of monitoring.
- Expertise in understanding what is observed.
- Coordination and communication.
So yes, if you have all of the above applied in a risk-management plan the probability of adverse outcome is likely to be significantly reduced.
- I have explored cause and causation from different perspectives. Whilst causes are usually the result of action, I have shown how inaction can become a ’cause’.
- Non-linearity is an important concept in complex situations.
- Whilst an event may not be predictable, it could be preventable.
Optional Supplementary reading
- Philosophical exploration of causation: The metaphysics of causation.
- Review of the Bradford Hill criteria (YouTube).
- Elwood’s framework on causation/causality (various internet sources).
Disclaimer & Guidance