Friday, October 19, 2007

Philosophy on Tap: Causation

Attended a Philosophy on Tap session at LogicMills yesterday, on the topic of Causation - where the guest speaker, Dr Edward Moad (NUS) , outlined philosophers' objection to the idea of cause and effect. I'll try to summarise the argument, but you'd better wiki it because I'm not a philosopher.

Basic argument - science operates on the basis of induction - that conditions of type C have always been followed by events of type E in the observed past, therefore conditions of type C will always be followed by events of type E in the future. But the inductive leap from part 1 of the argument to part 2 of the argument is based on a premise that, in layman's terms, the future will be the same as the past. And we can't prove that that inductive leap works - because we can only extrapolate based on the past, that the past futures have always been like past pasts.

Enter cause and effect - We use cause and effect theories to justify belief in / knowledge of induction arguments above. So C (dropping your pen) is clearly not the cause of E (baby born somewhere in the world) even though E always follows C, there's no causal link. Instead, C(sticking the car key in the ignition) is clearly (one of) the (long chain of) causes leading to the car starting.

In the end - there's no normatively justifiable reason for us to believe that there is cause and effect. Even though we need it to function, we should just accept that cause and effect is not provable.

Ok, first disclaimer - I think the argument doesn't debunk cause and effect so much as it debunks empiricism - and that one reason philosophers might be in love with this argument is that it proves that those scientists doing their material experiments can claim no superiority over the philosophers doing thought experiments in their head, because induction is flawed and therefore science is flawed. And just like all those people caught by Socrates' arguments, I can't come up with good arguments against the implications of that statement on the fly. But after a good night's sleep, my brain is churning out lots of good thoughts (I think).

1) There is a continuum of being wrong. Just because empiricism / induction is flawed / wrong in some way does not make it a useless belief/system, it may be less wrong than other systems. For instance, the belief that the world is round (it's not perfectly round!) is not as wrong as the belief that the world is flat.

2) Some statements may be true, but not be provable - ie, Godel.

3) Science / Empiricism is not based on knowing absolutely - instead, as the future becomes the present new knowledge is incorporated. Experiments disprove certain hypotheses, scientists have to come up with new explanations, new models, and that's the whole point of science. While it is true that the past may not be perfectly extrapolat-able to the future, that's fine. When we get to the future and find that "something has changed", empiricism will work it in then.

So to me, it's okay to believe almost anything as a starting point - even beliefs that to me are irrational. However, as evidence comes up that makes it more and more unlikely, you should work that into your belief model and review your beliefs accordingly. And that's the whole point of empiricism right?

On a side note, I do believe that cause is an illusion that's linked to our forward view of time. If time ran backward, we would see that the moving ball striking the cue causes the pool cue to move, not that other way around.

No comments: