November 19, 2017

Causality in a unified science

Towards a unified science (TUS).

If the notion of causality is to be retained in a unified science it needs to be seriously re-examined. A complete “causal” explanation of any event, such as John Smith’s falling down the stairs and breaking his leg, would involve among other things taking into account all antecedent events since the world began. Thus John Smith would probably not have fallen down the stairs if he had not gone to bed so late the previous night, nor if he had not drunk so much, nor if his wife had not put so much polish on the stairs, nor if his shoes had not been recently re-soled. Nor would this accident have occurred if he had not accepted a new job which made him get up so early, nor if he had been less preoccupied by what he was going to say at his board meeting. It is also true, however, that he would not have fallen down the stairs if he had not bought a house with such a slippery staircase, nor if his parents had not moved to London from the country where they had previously lived in a bungalow which had no staircase; nor for that matter if he had never been born, nor if his parents had never met, and similarly with their parents. If we assume our hero’s pure English pedigree, and if we go back far enough in this way, say 33 generations (1,000 years), we get a contemporaneous set of John Smith’s ancestors that so far exceeded what must have been the population of England at that time that each of its members must figure several hundred thousand times in John Smith’s geneological tree. It would follow that the slightest modification in the marital history of any of the inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England just before the Conquest would have averted the accident in question.

But John Smith’s fall can also be regarded as a complicated physical process, involving the interplay of an immensely elaborate nervous system with an equally complex organisation of limbs, muscles, organs, tissues, etc. Such an organisation has taken countless millions of years to evolve. Atoms had to associate with other atoms to become molecules. The biosphere had to undergo a series of modifications to render possible the development of the chemicals of life: carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous. These had to be combined in a particular way for those macromolecules like proteins and nucleic acids to emerge, which are the basis of living matter.

Cells had to appear, and they had to learn to combine to form multi-cellular organisms. About three billion years of evolution were then necessary before, out of the innumerable forms of life that had been tried and abandoned, one emerged that could conceivably be classified as man, and another million or two before there emerged another that could be classified as our John Smith.

Every little bit of this elaborate history has left its marks on our hero, and it is reasonable to suppose that had there, at any stage, been but the slightest deviation from it, he would have been spared the sad incident we are recounting.

Indeed, it must be clear that any one of the factors involved in this colossal process could be singled out as a “cause of the accident”.

Since the world is a four dimensional open system, whose spatial and temporal boundaries one cannot delineate, the process appears infinite in extent, and hence the possible causes appear infinite in number. In addition, it will be possible to divide the process and its constituent events indefinitely into as many sub-processes and sub-sub-processes as we wish.

If one regards this in a somewhat different light, one can consider John Smith as but a differentiated sub-process of a vast four-dimensional phylogenetic system, and think of our incident in terms of the behaviour of the latter instead of one of its more insignificant sub-processes. It thus becomes clear that in fact there are not an infinite number of causes of our incident, but only one cause, and this is the infinite four-dimensional systemic process involving the inter-action of all John Smith’s ancestors with their respective environments since the world began.

Certain sub-processes or events can be singled out and regarded as causes merely because, in a given context, they have the highest information value, i.e. are most relevant to explaining it. They are causes only for the purposes of this context. To regard these events as causes is also valid if a reasonably low degree of precision is required, i.e. for everyday purposes. For scientific purposes, it is evident that the whole process must be taken as the cause. The reader by now will realise that for the word “cause” can be substituted the word “model”, and that for the “total cause” can be substituted “general behavioural model”. Empiricists, when they talk about one event being the “cause” of another, are in fact building a model to explain a given situation. In accordance with the law of economy, they are merely selecting, out of an infinity of possible factors to be taken into account in their model, that which has the highest information value in the given context.

“Causes” as “explanation” or “model”

Thus if the term “cause” is to have any useful meaning, it must be taken to mean “explanation” or “model”. Unfortunately, the term tends to be used in such a way that it only applies to that part of a model that represents past events; thus, in explaining the cause of John Smith’s fall, we have exclusively referred to those events that preceded it. We must not forget that a model is four-dimensional. If it is to serve any behavioural function, it must permit the prediction of future events, as it is in this way that the model built up by a system can contribute to its increased stability. Indeed, the explanation of past events is only of use insofar as it leads to improvements of the model permitting ever more precise predictions.

The model of behaviour whose outline emerges from this series of articles is based on a number of generalities such as the concept of order, the principle of economy, the notion of the interaction between a system and its environment, and the accumulation, particularisation, and sequential principles. These can be differentiated and organised to constitute a model on the basis of which we can predict their future responses just as easily as to explain those that have already occurred. In both cases, the explanation that will be postulated will be that which fits in best with the model of which the generalities are provided by these same general principles.

A given process can therefore be explained in the light of any of the principles that make up our general model, each explanation corresponding to what could be regarded as the establishment of yet another cause. Let us illustrate this with reference to the life-cycle of the sitaris beetle.

Its life-cycle is described thus by Bierens de Haan:

“Its larvae pass their development in the cells of the solitary bee anthophora. To this end the sitaris mother lays her eggs at the entrance of the nest of this bee. The young larvae hibernate in these galleries till, in spring, when the larvae are already seven months old, the young bees leave their nest. At that moment the sitaris larvae attach themselves to the hairy bodies of the bees. Now, these young bees are mostly males, as the males come out earlier than the females, and it is therefore necessary for the larvae to go over on to the females which can only take place at the moment of copulation. If this succeeds, the larvae attach themselves to the thorax of the female bee and try to pass over to an egg or anthophora at the moment this is laid. If this also succeeds, the larva can feed herself first on the eggs and then on the contents of the cell of the anthophora.”1

In the light of a general behavioural model, we can provide the following “causal” explanation for the laying of the egg by the sitaris beetle in front of the nest of the anthophora:

  1. We know that a response only occurs when there is an environmental demand for it. The situation that triggers off the requisite response is referred to as a stimulus. Thus the sight of the nest acts as a stimulus releasing the egg-laying response. This is what is normally referred to as a “cause” by the empiricists.
  2. If a system is capable of any response, it is because it possesses the corresponding instructions, in this case, the egg-laying instructions, that have been built up phylogenetically, onto-genetically and by what is normally called “learning” (neurogenetically).
  3. Neither the presence of the environmental stimulus nor the possession of the correct instructions is sufficient to explain a response. Behaviour, as we know, must be explained in terms of the larger system, i.e. the interrelation between the two. Thus the cause can be regarded as the sight of the nest, and the possession of the egg-laying instructions.
  4. We know that a response must be regarded as but a step in a vast accumulative process. Thus we can regard the cause as all previous steps in the long-term and short-term behavioural processes, leading to this particular one.
  5. We also know that processes forming part of the more general one must occur in the correct sequence. This must hold for the differentiated parts of the sitaris beetle’s phylogenetic process. The necessary stimulus releasing the clinging response in the sitaris beetle is the sight of the male anthophora emerging from the nest. For this stimulus to be available, the female sitaris beetle must lay its egg in front of the anthophora’s nest. This action can be taken as occurring in order to permit the appearance of the stimulus that will trigger off the subsequent response.
  6. By the same token, we can say that it will occur to permit the subsequent response.
  7. We know that no system can survive unless the behaviour of its constituent parts is subordinated to it. This must be true of the behavioural unit or system which is the sitaris beetle’s unit of phylogeny, i.e. its species. Thus one can say that the response will occur so as to favour the survival of the species.

Unfortunately, arguing a posteriori in this manner is not regarded as legitimate by empiricist philosophers and those scientists that remain influenced by them since there is no empirical reason for postulating a goal, and to do so is to commit the “teleological heresy”. It is interesting to note, however, that the method is nevertheless in current use among good scientists.

A typical example of this is Lissmann’s explanation of the peculiar way in which the gymnarcus niloticus swims, with its “spine rigid as it moves”. He argues that:

“It would be rash to suppose that such a deviation from the fish plan could be attributed to an accident of nature. In biology, it always seems safer to assume that any redesign has arisen for some reason, even if the reason obstinately eludes the investigator. Since few fishes swim in this way, or have electric organs, and since the fishes that combine these features are not related, a mere coincidence would appear most unlikely.”

The model that he proposes to explain this phenomenon is as follows:

“The gymnarcus emits its own electric field, and its electrodes must always be kept in constant alignment. This condition would not be maintained if it constantly swished its tail like other fish. A mode of swimming that keeps the electric field symmetrical with respect to the body most of the time would therefore offer obvious advantages. It seems logical to assume that gymnarcus, or its ancestors, acquired the rigid mode of swimming along with the electric sensory apparatus and subsequently lost the broad oarlike tail fin.”2

Lissmann is in fact invoking a “wider teleonomic cause” in terms of the gymnarcus’s most general goal: survival, or increase stability.

To establish the “cause” of a behavioural response is to provide an explanation for it. An explanation is a hypothesis based on a model of behaviour. This must take into account all the factors that can exert some influence on the responses—not just certain specific factors such as environmental ones—to the exclusion of other factors such as inherited instructions and goals.

Many such relationships can be established, each one of which will be based on our general model of behaviour. A complete “causal” ex-plantation of the action in question will take all of them into account.

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1 Bierens de Haan, J. A. Animal Psychology (Hutchinson’s University Library, London), 1946.

2 Lissmann, H. W. “Electric Location by Fishes” in Scientific American, March 1963.

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