Causation and necessary connection

Vipin asked:

How do we define necessary connection essential for a cause-effect relationship? As per David Hume, there is no necessary connection found in matters of fact; but is it true? Can we not find any causal relationship between any two facts in this world?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I was hoping Craig would answer this one. I seem to have different intuitions about cause and effect from most philosophers coming to this topic. So you should take my answer with a big pinch of salt.

Hume saw the basis for the alleged ‘necessary connection’ between cause and effect in the operations of the mind, the tendency of the mind to pass from one ‘idea’ to another associated ‘idea’. He is careful to explain how this psychological process is consistent with a ‘logic’ of causes (see his ‘rules by which to judge of causes and effects’, Treatise of Human Nature Book I, Part III: Section XV). The frequently cited objection that merely noting regularities would fail to distinguish genuine cases of causation from accidental connections would leave him cold.

It’s a good theory, so far as it goes. Carl Hempel developed the idea in his ‘deductive-nomological’ (D-N) model of explanation. Various weird examples have been concocted, which attempt to show how the D-N model sometimes fails to track causation. One I remember from my Birkbeck days is ‘Valberg’s Bomb’, which greatly exercised G.A. Cohen, famous expositor of Marx, when he ventured into what was for him relatively unfamiliar territory of philosophy of science in a lecture series I attended. (I’ve just searched Google, but the only reference I could find to Valberg’s Bomb was an email I wrote back in 2011 Jerry Valberg was a colleague of G.A. Cohen at UCL.)

Elizabeth Anscombe, in her essay ‘Causality and Determination’ (E. Sosa, M. Tooley eds., Causation. OUP. pp. 88-104, 1993) challenged the Humean orthodoxy, arguing for a more traditional, pre-Humean notion of a cause as the ‘source’ from which the effect flows. On this account, there need be no universal law under which the cause-effect pair falls.

What is a genuine ‘effect’ of a ’cause’? The cause must be the ‘source’ of the effect. The cause must be the thing from which the effect ‘really comes’. This is something we all believe. But just repeating the belief, or finding some new word to describe it, is no help at all. The examples Anscombe cites in her paper are unpersuasive. In her impressive oeuvre, this essay seems somewhat of an oddity.

I used to be Humean, but I’ve come round, or at least half come round. What I now believe is that causation can be a one-off, just as Anscombe said. She was right. But I also believe in a Humean fashion that, in principle, anything can cause anything. Logically, anything is possible. It is logically possible that I could sneeze and as a result the universe could disappear in the next second. My typing a full stop at the end of the last sentence, could, in principle, have caused a plumber in Delhi to die of a heart attack.

Impossible, you say?

Let’s run the universe again in our total-universe simulator, and see what happens. We can stop Kennedy’s assassination, but only (on the ‘official’ theory) by preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from firing his rifle, or else spoiling his aim. In a similar way, we can try various ways of altering the course of world history, each more or less amusing. But every single time I type that period, Mr Singh’s heart stops. This is no mere accidental connection. We can’t explain it. Nor is there any ground for thinking that an explanation could, in principle, be available. It’s just a fact. Blame the glitch on whoever it was who designed the universe.

That’s my intuition. In practice, just as Hume said, we must always as a methodological principle look for a causal law to explain cause-effect relationships. But there is no guarantee that we will find the law in question, or even that it exists. Many of the things we take to be ‘effects’ of ’causes’ might not be such, and we would never know. Many of the things that we would never in a million years imagine could be ‘effects’ of ’causes’ might indeed be such, and we would never know. (For roughly Kantian reasons, we should add ‘hopefully not too many’.)

I honestly don’t think that was what Anscombe believed, not for one second. But that’s just the way with taking an argument, or an idea, to its logical conclusion.

As Plato said, you have to follow the argument wherever it goes.

Is it worth reading Plato’s dialogues?

Anne asked:

What is the best order to read Plato’s Dialogues in? Does it matter regarding understanding them and is it worth reading them all?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The very first philosophy book I picked up was one of the five volumes of Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Dialogues. That would have been around late 1971 in Swiss Cottage Library, London. I remember that it was a heavy tome, but have no recollection at all of which volume it was.

What captured my imagination was the polite and respectful way in which the participants in the dialogues spoke to one another. In Jowett’s translation, they sound a bit like Oxford dons debating in the Senior Common Room. Yet I was charmed.

Occasionally the participants get flustered or even angry. Socrates had that effect on people. But reading these conversations, some of which record actual discussions that took place two and a half millennia ago, I got a powerful sense of how important reason is, man’s highest faculty — and woman’s too.

There are no women in Plato’s dialogues, although Plato on occasion makes positive use of female imagery — for example, Socrates as midwife, or when various Greek goddesses make an appearance.

Anne, I don’t want to tell you which dialogues to read, but can only echo what Giddy said in his advice to Richard:

I could tell you that the Phaedo, recounting the last day of Socrates’ life and exploring arguments for the immortality of the soul, is a dramatic masterpiece, sufficient to move a reader to tears — and all that talk about the ‘soul’ might leave you cold.

Or I could say that the Republic is an epic journey into Plato’s ethics and metaphysics, every bit as gripping as Lord of the Rings, and you’d just get bored by the interminable length of it.

The Theaetetus is a startlingly modern exploration of the nature of knowledge and problems around relativism of truth and perception, and yet the arguments might just leave you flummoxed. Similarly the Parmenides, where Plato manages the extraordinary feat of admitting seemingly fatal objections to his prized Theory of Forms.

These days, the complete Jowett translations are available in a single volume. I’m guessing you have that, as like Shakespeare’s Complete Plays it is so widely available. Why not just start at page one? Keep a notebook of your progress. It might very well be the case that the ‘lesser’ dialogues, the ones the scholars don’t discuss so often, succeed in getting you hooked just because of their relatively modest, down-to-earth ambitions.

As a default strategy, reading a book all the way through isn’t that bad. And you have the pleasure of seeing, day by day, or week by week, how far you’ve come. Read it like a novel. As you progress, you will learn more and more about the character of Socrates, a man of charisma and passion, so very different from ‘philosophers’ (so-called) today.

As for the order, the only thing you need to know is that, although there is some debate around this, Plato’s dialogues are roughly divided in to his early, middle and late periods. The early dialogues are more like actual records of discussions that Socrates had. In the later dialogues, although still featuring the figure of Socrates, Plato is speaking directly to us.

Is it worth reading Plato’s dialogues? How can you say that? On this forum?! — Only joking. All I can say is, Try it, you might like it.

— And if you don’t, try something else.

I want to be a Superman

Jose asked:

I am interested in becoming the Superman (Nietzsche) giving that prototype a try. What would be the requirements or how could it be possible in modern times?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What a great ambition!

You will need all your strength and passion, and then some. You could start by reading all the works of Nietzsche, including the collection of writings published posthumously as The Will to Power (with caution because these were Nietzsche’s notebook jottings selected by his sister Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, who later was to become a supporter of Adolf Hitler).

But what exactly are the requirements for becoming a — no reason why there should be only one — Nietzschean Ubermensch (literally, ‘Overman’)?

Here’s Walter Kaufmann:

The Ubermensch — even if one considers Nietzsche’s reverence for Napoleon and Caesar, rather than his admiration for Socrates and Goethe… is the ‘Dionysian’ man who is depicted under the name of Goethe at the end of Gotzen-Dammerung [Twilight of the Idols] (ix, 49). He has overcome his animal nature, organized the chaos of his passions, sublimated his impulses, and given style to his character — or, as Nietzsche said of Goethe: ‘he disciplined himself to wholeness, he created himself’ and became ‘the man of tolerance, not from weakness but from strength,’ ‘a spirit who has become free.’

Kauffmann, W. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist p.316

I stand to be corrected by Nietzsche scholars, but it is not clear that for Nietzsche any historical or (then) contemporary character had fully succeeded in this self-transformation. There are stages along the way, and some progress further than others. In Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche talks of a ‘rope stretched over an abyss’ which conveys the sense of danger — one can fall into the abyss at any point on the journey — but also a distance that has to be travelled, comparable (metaphorically, if not literally) to the distance between an ape and a human being.

As Desmond Morris vividly demonstrated, we are, in fact, apes (The Naked Ape). Actually, to get the best taste of this, rather than watching the ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies, you could read Aldous Huxley Ape and Essence, a very disturbing work which I came across in my youth.

We are apes. We share with chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutangs the tendency to get overcome by the feelings of the moment. As Freud noted, we are prisoners of our drives, which the process of civilization has enabled us only partially to sublimate. I am writing these words today, because I was in the mood to write, and if I had not been in the mood your question might have remained unanswered. I have to be in the right mood, or the words don’t come. That’s how apelike I am.

In modern times, strange as it may seem, you might stand the best chance of overcoming your ‘all-too-human’ nature by getting psychoanalysed. Once you’ve done that, in theory at least, you have become like a musician who has mastered the art of the biological instrument that evolution has created, an instrument that was never ‘intended’ to be anything but a faster, cleverer ape.

Power over others is something you might, as an Overman, acquire — if you are a writer, say, who is able to move others by the power of words, or possibly a political leader (Churchill would be closer to this model than Hitler, but still a long way off). However, in a similar way to the ‘overcoming’ of Neanderthals by Homo Sapiens, it would take significant numbers of Overmen to pose any threat to humanity. Given the present ‘decadent’ state of our culture, that scenario is a long way away from being realised.

Although the National Socialists were totally wrong in thinking that Nietzsche’s idea had anything to do with their brutally animalistic interpretation of the ‘Will to Power’, there is a sense human beings would be in danger — for example, if we were visited by an alien species who had succeeded in realizing Nietzsche’s ideal. It would be incredibly hurtful to truly see ourselves as they saw us, perhaps that alone would be enough to destroy our reason to continue living on this Earth.

Nietzsche’s vision is, in a way, brutal because in stark contrast to Kant — or indeed any ‘Christian’ reading of his works — Nietzsche sees humanity as a means, not an end. Ultimately, the only thing that gives meaning to human life, is the possibility we will be succeeded by the Overman.

Buridan’s ass revisited

Nathaniel asked:

I have a question, I’m starting to believe in determinism. but I see one small problem. say a man goes into a coma, awakes with the knowledge to speak but has no prior memory of his past (subconscious or conscious). the nurse asks him if he wants outcome 1 or 2. he has no memory of either outcomes and therefore no predetermined subconscious decision could be made. What would be the reasoning behind his choice? Please assume he cannot ask information about the two outcomes before he makes his choice as I believe his first choice would be to ask about them because he has no belief, desire, or temperament in this situation. I know this is a hypothetical situation and might be a little silly, but I believe this question to be the only one I could ask.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a great question, Nathaniel. Don’t worry if you’ve tried on a few people and they thought it was silly, because it isn’t. It is anything but. If we can’t solve this then determinism as applied to human behaviour is a dead duck.

Suppose the man chooses 1. Why 1? What is so special or pertinent about 1 that makes it preferable to 2? Or suppose he chooses 2. Why 2? What is so special or pertinent about 2 that makes it preferable to 1?

— Actually, I think this could be a slight worry about your example. Surely, a person can have a general preference for odd numbers over even numbers or vice versa. (The Pythagoreans saw the odd and the even as having fundamentally different cosmic attributes.) The same worry would in principle apply to any two numbers. What you want is a way of referring two two options that is completely neutral.

And that’s difficult. In principle. Press the button on the left or the right? No good. Go through the door in front or the door behind? No good. Think up any method you like, there will always be some difference that, even if it isn’t relevant to the outcome of the decision, is still sufficient for making a determined choice.

The medieval logician Buridan was here first. He proposed the scenario of a hungry ass placed at an equal distance between two baskets of food. There has to be some basis for choice, otherwise the ass will die of hunger.

Except we know it won’t. There is no way of setting up the experiment that will result in a dead ass — leaving aside moral considerations. However (as I seem to remember from an answer I gave quite a while ago) you can do this with a house fly. Say, you are squeamish about killing flies but don’t like them flying around your kitchen and nibbling at your food. You can literally catch a fly with two wads of soft cotton wool. Wave the wads slightly as you approach slowly from the left and the right at the same time. The fly will try to turn. Follow it. Then close in. Carefully transport the fly inside the cotton wads to an open window and let it go.

You might need to practice a few times. There will be some fly deaths. But eventually, you’ll get there.

Why can’t you do this with an ass? Aside from he size, because the ass has a more sophisticated nervous system. When faced with the two basket scenario the ass does a little thing in its head equivalent to tossing a coin. It just chooses, for no reason.

When chess playing programs were first devised, the programmers faced a similar problem. The program will sometimes evaluate two possible outcomes as exactly the same, say, one quarter of a pawn. In that case, in order to move, the program has to make a random choice.

And that’s what we do. A lot. Think of supermarket isles with long lines of cans of beans, or TV controllers with rows of buttons. If we weren’t able to make these kinds of choices, the human race would have died out long ago.

Socrates on virtue and the cosmic order

Steven asked:

Is it true that Socrates was chiefly concerned with ethics?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I was almost not going to answer this because at first sight the question seems so dumb. Saying that Socrates was ‘chiefly concerned with ethics’ is like saying that Einstein was ‘chiefly concerned with science’. Sure, Einstein was concerned with other things too, like world peace, the fate of the Jewish people, etc. But, yes, science was definitely his thing. Duh!

Then I thought, no, this is wrong. Socrates wasn’t concerned with ethics. Not as we understand that term, through the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Greeks had no concept of a duty of loving kindness to the stranger. There is no place for altruism, although central to Greek world view was courageous self-sacrifice in battle: a good death.

It was ‘goodness’ in the sense of doing things well, that the Greeks were after. Aristotle in his Ethics gives a masterful analysis of the moral psychology of living well, as a human being should live, using all one’s powers of reason and judgement, following a well-forged path of habituation in always seeking — without any sense of inner struggle — to make the ‘right’ choice.

The Greek word is arete, which we translate by the wishy-washy term ‘virtue’ but which to the Greeks meant so much more. In Plato’s dialogue Meno, Socrates challenges the young aristocrat Meno to give a definition of ‘arete’. The whole dialogue is about trying and failing to define ‘arete’, and yet, as a demonstration with a slave boy ‘proving’ (with a bit of help) a geometrical theorem shows, we must somehow know what arete is — otherwise, how would we be able to judge that the various proposed definitions are wrong?

What is arete? That’s one question. How do we ‘somehow know’ what it is, even if we can’t confidently say?

The arete of an archer is what gives him or her the ability to reliably hit the bulls eye. If you don’t have arete, your arrows will go all over the place. Similarly (mutatis mutandis) with the swordsman, the potter, the carpenter, and any other skill you can think of. Aristotle likes the simile of the archer, because it vividly calls to mind what we are trying to do when we make an ethical judgement. And we don’t always ‘hit the target’!

The arete of a human being is, simply, to live well. Justice, temperance, courage are all involved, and all, somehow, constitute a ‘unity’ according to Socrates. You can’t have one without the other. But why these? Why is it so great to be just rather than unjust, temperate rather than intemperate, courageous rather than cowardly?

To my knowledge, Plato states the answer explicitly just once in his dialogues, in the Gorgias where Socrates is debating with Callicles, student of the great sophist Gorgias. It’s a powerful answer. His concept is mind-blowing in its immensity:

… wise men tell us, Callicles, that heaven and earth and gods and men are held together by communion and friendship, by orderliness, temperance, and justice; and that is the reason, my friend, why they call the whole of this world by the name of order, not of disorder or dissoluteness. Now you, as it seems to me, do not give proper attention to this, for all your cleverness, but have failed to observe the great power of geometrical equality amongst both gods and men: you hold that self-advantage is what one ought to practice, because you neglect geometry.

Don’t get it? First, you need to remember that Plato often uses allegories, so don’t be confused with all the talk of ‘gods’. This is about the cosmos (Greek word), the order that constitutes the universe, and a human being’s place in this order. There is no way, thought Socrates, to grasp what is ultimately real, that does not lead by a straight path to an understanding of how we should live, as self-moving elements in this universal order.

In simple terms, ethics and grasping the ultimate nature of reality, cannot be separate things. Ethics and metaphysics are one and the same.

And here’s the rub. If you revisit Socrates’ immense idea, with the monotheistic mindset, you get a ‘take’ on metaphysics that turns the whole subject upside down. That take was offered by the 20th century philosopher writing in the phenomenological tradition, Emmanuel Levinas, in his magnum opus Totality and Infinity.

Read that book, and let your mind be blown.

Locke, Berkeley and Ockham’s Razor

Lisa asked:

How does Berkeley use Ockham’s Razor against John Locke?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Another student assignment. I am going to make this easier for you, Lisa, by telling you what your teacher wants to hear. Then I am going to give my own view which you are totally free to ignore. In which case you don’t need to read past the third paragraph of my answer.

The story goes like this: In his Essay on Human Understanding, Locke gave an account of the origin of our ‘ideas’ — sense impressions and the concepts based on them — in terms of the interaction of our sense organs with material reality. Bishop Berkeley looked at this and thought, ‘Hmm, I can give just as good an account without positing this extra entity, ‘matter’. No-one ever experiences ‘matter’. All we experience are perceptions. On my theory, all statements about so-called ‘material reality’ are just conditional statements about actual and possible experiences.’

This is a classic example of the application of Ockham’s Razor, ‘Do not multiply theoretical posits unnecessarily.’ According to Berkeley, ‘matter’ is a theoretical posit that we can painlessly dispose of. Conditional statements about possible experiences are the ultimate truth about external reality. Job done.

First, a picky point. When physicists talk about Ockham’s Razor, they tend to mean something else than when a philosopher appeals to this principle. In physics, or science generally, not making unnecessary posits is a constitutive part of the task of constructing the most simple or elegant theory. The most elegant theory can still be false. We can get fooled by reality, things can be more complicated than we assumed, but in the long run we are less likely to be fooled if we follow the rule of preferring simple explanations to those that are unnecessarily complex.

In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein offers a radically different take:

If a sign is useless, it is meaningless. That is the point of Occam’s maxim.
(If everything behaves as if a sign had meaning, then it does have meaning.)
(Para 3.328)

Occam’s maxim is, of course, not an arbitrary rule, not one that is justified by its success in practice: its point is that unnecessary units in a sign-language mean nothing.
Signs that serve one purpose are logically equivalent, and signs that serve none are logically meaningless.
(Para 5.47321)

On Wittgenstein’s reading, what Berkeley is saying is not, ‘I can give a more elegant theory than Locke.’ Just read Berkeley, and you will see how wrong that is. He repeatedly makes the point that ‘matter’ is a meaningless notion, a horrendous invention of philosophers, while it is plain ‘common sense’ that all we know or can ever think about are our own perceptions.

But here’s the rub: the attempt to reduce statements about the external world to ‘conditional statements about actual and possible experiences’ is a catastrophic failure. (If you’re interested in pursuing this, read Chrisopher Peacocke Holistic Explanation: action, space, interpretation 1977.) Briefly, it is impossible to pin down ‘objects’ because every conditional statement refers to many, many more conditional statements. It’s like trying to solve simultaneous equations with too many unknowns.

I don’t think Berkeley thought the matter through to this point. It’s difficult when the only logic you know is the logic of Aristotle. However, what he did realize is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the notion that conditional statements can represent the ultimate truth about anything. A conditional needs a truth maker, a non-conditional fact in virtue of which the conditional statement is true. (If you’re inclined to doubt this, try it for yourself. Imagine that some conditional statement is ‘in fact’ the case, but there is no further non-conditional fact that accounts for its truth.)

Berkeley saw this quite clearly: his response was all our perceptions are ultimately explained by the virtual reality blueprint in the mind of God. My answer has already been long enough, so I won’t explore this aspect of Berkeley further. (Do a search, this is a topic that has come up before on Ask a Philosopher.)

So, we threw out matter and brought in… God?

Ockham’s Razor?!

On Fred Hoyle’s ‘junkyard tornado’

Orlando asked:

Is the “junkyard tornado” argument of Sir Fred Hoyle for the existence of God as bad as Richard Dawkins seems to think it is?

Geoffrey Klempner

As I recall — from Dawkins’ 1991 televised Royal Society Christmas Lectures, which I sat through, spellbound — is that Dawkins accepts the ‘steep slope of improbability’ as a challenge which he believes can be met. Improbable as it may seem, computer modelling demonstrates that there is a series of relatively ‘small’ evolutionary steps that lead, e.g. to a fully-formed wing or an eye.

But suppose Dawkins is wrong. I don’t see that it really matters. We can go further and assume that Darwin’s theory of evolution is complete rubbish, just as the creationists say it is.

Imagine that I gave you a typescript of the works of Shakespeare, and told you that it had been typed out, without a single mistake, by my pet chimpanzee. You would have every reason to disbelieve me.

However, we know that there is a finite a priori probability that what I have described might take place — in some possible world. Just work out the total number of actions that a chimpanzee could conceivably perform on a keyboard, including tapping a key, pressing shift or return, etc. then put that number to the power of the number of characters, spaces, paragraphs in Shakespeare’s works.

The result is a very large number. But so what? That doesn’t show that it’s impossible. Only that I must be pulling your leg, by any reasonable standard for belief.

The story of a Boeing 747 being ‘assembled’ by a junkyard tornado out of aeroplane parts is more problematic, because one would first like to see a proof that various stages in the assembly are physically possible, regardless of improbability. For example, inserting rivets requires a riveting gun, otherwise you just don’t have sufficient steady force to do the job. Epoxy glue needs to be heated to the right temperature. And so on.

Well, let’s agree that the formation, say, of DNA from its chemical constituents is as improbable, or even more improbable than the chimpanzee story. The difference is that you and I are here, talking about this, so unless creationism is true in some form or other, we just happen to be extremely lucky. In our possible world — one in a gazillion — things turned out just fine.

Why believe that tall story rather than creationism? The familiar reasons, which I won’t repeat here. The argument I’ve just given isn’t going to convince anyone who is a true believer in the Bible, but it works just fine for any true believer in science who is against creationism on fundamental principle.

My gut feeling is that there’s a lot of work still to do before Darwin’s theory looks like a genuine theory rather than the most plausible conjecture. It’s only on the table because it doesn’t have any real competitor as a naturalistic account. I’m with Fred Hoyle that evolution is not exactly easy to believe.

As an historical digression, the Ancient Greek atomists didn’t have anything so fancy as Darwin’s idea about natural selection to work from. They may well have observed how when wet gravel is shaken in a sieve — as in panning for gold — the heaviest lumps move to the centre. In addition, by the principle of insufficient reason, there must be atoms of every conceivable shape, so when the ‘right’ atoms collide, they stick together like Lego bricks, eventually forming the world as we know it. (Computer model that!)

In other words, with only initial random motion, it is possible to have a physical system whereby entropy is reduced on purely natural principles. That was all the atomists thought they needed.