Of Causation and History (Crooked Timber)

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Crooked Timber) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

I have completed Taleb’s The Black Swan and will say more about it later but I first want to take him to task on one of his opinions (one that he doesn’t really hold as it turns out). From page 171:

Popper’s insight concerns the limitations in forecasting historical events and the need to downgrade “soft” areas such as history and social science to a level slightly above aesthetics and entertainment, like butterfly or coin collecting. (Popper who received a classical Viennese education didn’t go quite so far; I do. I am from Amioun.) What we call the soft historical sciences are narrative dependent studies.

To confuse historicism and history is a horrible conflation, and no claims to rural roots should excuse this kind of boorishness. As Aristotle by way of Aquinas and Schumacher reminds us,

‘the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.'(*) ‘Slender’ knowledge is here put in opposition to ‘certain’ knowledge, and indicates uncertainty.

(*) Aquinas, Summa theologica, I, 1, 5 ad 1.

There is a compelling case to be made in my view that if the people who had invaded Iraq had any appreciation of the recent history of the region they would have been much more careful. The 2003 invasion looks awfully like the British 1914 invasion with very similar horrible and tragic consequences for occupier and occupied.

So what is the nature of this knowledge? I would say (after Feynman) that it should be essentially causal.

Physicists like to think that all you have to do is say, ‘These are the conditions, now what happens next?’ But all our sister sciences have a completely different problem: in fact all the other things that are studied – history, geology, astronomical history – have a problem of this other kind. I find that they are able to make predictions of a completely different type from those of a physicist. A physicist says, ‘In this condition I’ll tell you what will happen next.’ But a geologist will say something like this – ‘I have dug in the ground and I have found certain kinds of bones. I predict that if you dig in the ground you will find a similar kind of bones’. The historian, although he talks about the past, can do it by talking about the future. When he says that the French Revolution was in 1789, he means that if you look in another book about the French Revolution you will find the same date. What he does is to make a kind of prediction about something that he has never looked at before, documents that still have to be found. He predicts that the documents in which there is something written about Napoleon will coincide with what is written in other documents.

Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, p. 114

Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber has an interesting whack at some sloppy thinking in No idea more obscure and uncertain, complaining about the thoughtless cliché regularly heard in social science circles that a correlation isn’t causal.

I grudgingly admit that it’s a plausible-sounding rule, and in the textbooks and stuff. But, to be honest, I read it too many times in various posts and comments threads the other day, and in my raging pique I found myself thinking that the next time it happened I would say, “That’s completely backwards: in fact, causation is just correlation” and fling a copy of Hume’s first Enquiry at their head. Or at the screen, I suppose, but that image is less satisfying, because now who’s the crank on the internet, etc.

The critical point about a set of correlations if it is to become causal is that some of them must be in the future: there must be predictions. If you can provide a decision procedure for determining when a set of conditions have come together and then predict how the situation will evolve then you have a causal relationship, provided you have a ‘strong’ prediction that can’t be explained by known causal relationships (the proposed relationship should be surprising).

Some might argue that occupying a Muslim-majority country with armies from Christian-majority countries, countries with especially controversial records in the region, was always going to end in tears without studying the 1914 invasion. However it could be argued that a study of the 1914 invasion would provide quite detailed knowledge of the kind of pain to come.

In a similar vein we could try to study the modern history of Iran for some clues as to how 70 million plus Iranians are likely to respond to military attacks on them by imperial alliances that are still held accountable for a 26-year dictatorship that made their current current government look like a haven of democracy, meritocracy and egalitarianism.

[I have written more on this view of causation while explaining why physicalism is dead, for the duration at least.  Despite being the orthodox school—no—because it is the orthodox school it is hopelessly inappropriate.  Our thinking is so bent in its direction now that such a metaphysics will only make our blind spots that much worse: see Consciousness Really Explained?.]

2 responses to “Of Causation and History (Crooked Timber)

  1. Pingback: The Causation Debate « Peace & Wisdom

  2. Pingback: The Black Swan: All in the Mind? « Peace & Wisdom

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