Causality as a Conceptual Tool

Causality itself is an evolved conceptual tool that simplifies, schematizes, and focuses our representation of situations. This cognitive machinery guides us to think in terms of the cause—of an outcome’s having a single cause. Yet for enlarged understanding, it is more accurate to represent outcomes as caused by an intersection, or nexus, of factors (including the absence of precluding conditions). In War and Peace, Tolstoy asks, “When an apple ripens and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stem withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it...?” With little effort, any modern scientist could extend Tolstoy’s list endlessly. We evolved, however, as cognitively improvisational tool users, dependent on identifying actions we could take that would lead to immediate payoffs. So our minds evolved to represent situations in a way that highlighted the element in the nexus that we could manipulate to bring about a favored outcome. Elements in the situation that remained stable and that we could not change (like gravity or human nature) were left out of our representation of causes. Similarly, variable factors in the nexus (like the wind blowing), which we could not control but which predicted an outcome (the apple falling), were also useful to represent as causes, to prepare ourselves to exploit opportunities or avoid dangers. So the reality of the causal nexus is cognitively ignored in favor of the cartoon of single causes. While useful for a forager, this machinery impoverishes our scientific understanding, rendering discussions (whether elite, scientific, or public) of the “causes”—of cancer, war, violence, mental disorders, infidelity, unemployment, climate, poverty, and so on—ridiculous.


John Tooby on how causation is a way we simplify the world to more easily understand it, but it can also over-simplify.

Folksonomies: modeling simulation causality

/health and fitness/disease (0.355576)
/technology and computing/consumer electronics/telephones/mobile phones/smart phones (0.299184)
/society/unrest and war (0.293121)

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Tolstoy:Person (0.895542 (neutral:0.000000)), John Tooby:Person (0.715562 (positive:0.491092)), apple:Company (0.611592 (negative:-0.472808)), scientist:JobTitle (0.543686 (neutral:0.000000))

Causality (0.949224): dbpedia | freebase
Cognition (0.655265): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Ontology (0.585865): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Free will (0.562752): dbpedia | freebase
Cosmological argument (0.543889): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Metaphysics (0.527227): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Quantum mechanics (0.460265): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Concepts in metaphysics (0.453317): dbpedia

 This Will Make You Smarter
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Brockman , John (2012-02-14), This Will Make You Smarter, HarperCollins, Retrieved on 2013-12-19
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: science


    19 DEC 2013

     The Cognitive Toolbox

    Memes that would make good index cards for a box of important cognitive ideas.