Category Archives: Causation

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.

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The Cause of Terrorism?

It struck me while writing the previous article how pervasive is the idea that things have a single cause, but we have no reason to believe this, and we know it. To create fire I need to bring together fuel, heat and air. Take any of these away, as any fire fighter will tell you, and you will no longer have fire: all of these causal factors need to be present. So many arguments swing on the fallacy that things have to have single causes: whether terrorism is caused by unscrupulous people and their malignant ideology or attacks on other people’s countries and cultures. Plainly they are both causal factors—everyone feared an increase in terrorist attacks after the invasion in Iraq and in England cash machines tell you to be wary of suspicious packages while ATMs in the Republic of Ireland don’t carry any such warning. Invading other people’s countries is reasonably good predictive indicator that some of the people being so attacked (and they may not reside in the countries being attacked but merely identify with them) will seek to reply in kind by attacking the countries doing the attacking at their vulnerable points. Clearly violent exploitative ideology is necessary too.

While all the causes need to come together to bring about a terrorist attack, it makes sense for us to focus on the causal factors that we control and are responsible for. Once we address these it will become a lot easier (and much more effective) to ask others to address their own contribution to the problem.

Faith and Reason in the Dharma

[This article is quite technical in parts but as I am not qualified to write on Buddhist philosophy I have been careful to try and repeat what my teachers have told me, but the reader should investigate other sources before placing too much weight on what I say here. If you find this topic interesting I recommend reading the compact Four Noble Truths, with the original teachings available on line in four parts: 1, 2, 3 & 4.]

In the Dalai Lama’s recent Nottingham teachings (see this article for a report) H. H. reminded us of the way faith and reason works in Buddhism and I think it is worth saying a bit about this as there is much confusion about the proper place of faith in religion. In the case of Buddhism it is caught up with epistemology and causation so please bear with me; it does come together in the end. (Incidentally I recommend Pope John Paul’s Fides et Ratio encylical on how faith and reason work together in Catholocism.) Buddhism classifies knowledges into three categories: truths that are manifestly true and can be verified by direct sense perception, truths that can be verified through reasoning and truths that require the testimony of an authority. For example, to get a general picture of the weather here in Madrid I can just look outside the window, but I can tell through direct sense perception what is happening with the wind as I could outside (by feeling the movement of the air), but I can see from the motion of the trees that it is quite windy. However I would have to rely on some authority to tell me about the weather in Brighton. Note that the boundary between the first two categories isn’t always clear as the sight of the trees is a direct sense perception and the inferential step from here to wind is trivial, but you get the idea.

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