Tag Archives: Philosophy

The Causation Debate

I have been discussing causation over at Crooked Timber and despite a couple of attempts to explain myself I am not being understood. Having chucked a simple textbook example at me folks seem to have just ignored my point which I find interesting. To recap the point at issue is when does a set of correlations become a cause? I have proposed that it becomes a cause when some of those correlations lie in the future, when there are predictions involved and the correlation is surprising—i.e., is the correlation is true it adds to our knowledge of the world (see here; my thinking here has been entirely shaped by the late, great Richard Feynman). So if I claim that when you jump up and down on one leg while picking your noes, your tooth ache will always disappear then you can try it out and see it is it works—see if you observe this correlation the next time you get a tooth ache. If you do (and repeatedly so) then you have some new tentative causal knowledge that will become strengthened as you reliably see the correlation in a variety of circumstances. The textbook example that people have been throwing at me is that if I take causation is correlation too seriously then I will be forced to conclude that cock’s crows cause sun to rise, but this isn’t a problem here. Suns rising after cocks crowing isn’t surprising to me—I am not looking to explain that correlation having a perfectly satisfactory set of causal relationships to explain it (but thanks anyway).

I prodded noen (a commentator of this blog) and noen was good enough take pity on me and explain what nobody had thought worth spelling out to me:

I’m not sure what you’re getting at Chris. Discovering a correlation is an invitation to further study. One shouldn’t leap to conclusions. The problem is that no matter how fine grained our mechanism is there will always be a leap involved. So we are left with observing that B follows A and concluding that A causes B. We call that deduction but there is a gap in our understanding. There always will be.

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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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Metaphysical Bloviation (II)

The Ducks have challenged me on my pleas for metaphysical tolerance and Hey Skipper has posted some reflections on an Economist article, When Religions Talk, asserting “By definition, religions assert mutually exclusive metaphysical claims”.

Robert Duquette strikes close to the heart of the issue in his comment on my article:

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This is NOT Compassion

Well, not necessarily.  We have no reason to believe that when Obama comforts the student when she breaks down 5:15 that this is an act of compassion.

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Metaphysical Bloviation?

Over at talkingphilosophy blog Jeff Mason has an elegant essay on metaphysics that takes the Kantian view that the physical sciences are the source of all knowledge and everything else is mere speculation. My problem with this essay, and Kant’s critique, is that they are the worst examples of the very thing that they are complaining about—making, as they do, grandiose excessively-general statements about the nature of reality that are quite immune from empirical or logical examination, the most extravagant metaphysical conceit of them all. The genre really should be called metametaphysics as it installs itself as the last arbiter on truth and preemptively disqualifies, tout court, anything that could offer an alternative to its dogmatically positivistic understanding of reality.

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The Love Buzz

I am aware that my article on Ahmadinejad will probably be comprehensible and attract much ridicule in some quarters (as may my earlier articles, On Zionism, though in different quarters). That is not a problem but it would be a shame. The whole issue is actually intimately related to my recent essay On Love and many other articles on the need to keep head and hart unified, to avoid allowing our ethical judgments be dominated by sentiment (the modern mistake and the central theme of Sense and Sensibility and all of Jane Austen’s novels in my view). Here I will try to draw these themes together and fulfill a promise to reply to a fellow blogger.

Robert Duquette, commenting on my essay, On Love, questioned this effort do all this loving through the intellect, and encapsulated Taleb’s idea (explained in his book, The Black Swan) that our memory, and indeed our whole way of understanding reality, is narrative driven, leading us to simply ignoring or immediately forgetting information that fails to fit the narratives that makes up our understanding of reality. Taleb’s idea makes perfect sense to me and is compatible with what my Buddhist teachers have taught me (as I have understood them).

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On Love

In our Thursday evening meditation group at The Bodhi Garden we looked at the chapter on Meditation on Love from Kathleen McDonald’s How to Meditate. Each chapter in this book has been a revelation to us: McDonald’s simple and clear prose has a depth that can be easily missed. Here is the first paragraph that we looked at in the Thursday group.

Love, also called “loving-kindness,” is wanting others to be happy. It is a natural quality of mind, but until we develop it through meditation and other practices it remains limited, reserved for a few select individuals—usually those we are attached to. Genuine love is universal in scope, extending to everyone, without exception.

Buddhists have for the most part have given up on the word ‘love’ and an inspection of the entry on love Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy shows us why. Even sticking to the philosophical definitions of love we can see extreme confusion, without going anywhere near the ideas of love held by the benighted and unphilosophical.

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