If something positive or negative happens, we try to find a reason for it. A cause for the effect generated. We do this because we want good things to happen again. Finding the cause of a good thing enables us to reproduce it. The same goes for negative events. Knowing the cause prevents the effect from happening again. From a logical stance, this all sounds like pretty simple stuff.
Despite this simplicity, humans aren’t so well-equipped for utilizing this causal thinking.
We live in a complex universe which is difficult (maybe even impossible) to fully understand. We like to think that we can understand it, but there are a number of reasons why we can’t:
The first reason why we’ll never fully understand our universe is because we are part of it. We are an effect of the evolving universe. When we study the universe it is the same as the universe studying itself. Objectively studying oneself imposes some serious limitations. You can’t see the house from inside the house, as they say.
To put this another way, if we consider the universe to be everything, we can never know the universe, because we can only understand it if there were a non-universe to compare it to. We cannot know black without white, solid without liquid, universe without non-universe.
The second, more intuitive reason is that the universe is simply too complex. When studying it we can only study a very, very small part at a time. So we focus. And by focusing we disregard most information. We never see the whole picture. Sometimes though, we “glimpse” the whole picture, or a large part of it, when meditating or during times of reflection.
We then feel that we are part of something bigger, even though we cannot grasp it, write it down or explain it. If we try to explain it we start focusing, leaving out so much information that the experience is lost.
The third reason why we cannot understand our universe is that, as Alan Watts put it, the universe “wiggles”. Meaning that so many things happen at the same time, that it’s impossible, even for the most powerful of computers today, to analyze all the causes and effects produced by this “wiggling”. It’s like dominoes falling, but every time one falls it produces two or three more. Each of those do the same thing, crafting a huge and exponential spread of activity every second.
So…wasn’t this about cause and effect thinking?
Right, so essentially we have three problems with our perception of the universe. It’s infinitely complex, has no real counterpoint (anti-universe?), and is completely interdependent in a way that each aspect can impact any other aspect in real time. So let’s apply these concepts to causal thinking, and why humans struggle so much with it.
If you’re like me, you had to look up this name. For me, I googled the snake that’s eating its own tail. That’s this guy, Ouroboros. It’s been around for ages, and for good reason. It’s the ultimate example of why causality becomes broken when focus is applied. Too often, we find patterns eventually repeating themselves, beginnings mixing with ends in a way that baffles our concept of causality. Chickens and eggs.
We look at cause and effect as a chain of actions and reactions that can all be traced back to one single cause. We see this world as a collection of things that start and eventually end. It is understandable that we think that way – our very lives seem to start and end. But if you look at our lives on a very small scale, looking at the material that we are made of (which is at least billions of years old, if it hasn’t been around literally forever), then it is impossible to say when our lives really did start – or end. Only our ‘conscious awareness’ of it ends.
And why must everything have a start and end? Maybe it’s a limitation of our brain that we think in terms of start and end. Maybe the universe has been around, and will be around for ever. Expressing itself in what we call life, expressing itself in us. We are part of something that might not have a beginning, something that might not have an end, something that might not have an initial cause.
Turtles all the way down
So, it seems like there may not be a singular ‘start’ to all of the ends we are experiencing. But we still find that effects have causes that are sort of…chronologically nearby? Let’s take an example.
You might have a toothache and your dentist says that the cause is a cavity. While fixing the cavity heals your toothache, the cavity itself might have many causes (so does the pain). Too much sugar, too little calcium, a fall, a piece of stone in your bread, grinding your teeth when sleeping, old age, etc. All these causes, which are at the same time effects, have their own causes, which are also effects. Is the cavity the ‘cause’ of the pain, or is it due to exposed nerve endings? The thing is we can come up with ten or twenty causes to one effect, but we can never fully grasp all the billions causes, singular or interdependent, sequential in time or parallel, for the toothache.
Even more relatable would be that terribly behaved child in a kindergarten class. The amateur teacher blames the child at first (subconsciously), and then moves right on to bad parenting. But what about what cause the bad parenting? Probably a different set of parents to blame. It’s tricky, because the ill-behaved kid has the cause of the poorly prepared parent, which is usually caused by some other circumstance (poverty, more poorly prepared parents, etc.). Ultimately, it’s just turtles all the way down, as Bertrand Russell might say.
The limitations of the human mind
Let’s be honest, most of us know all of this. But we still screw up causal thinking anyway.
This is because our mind can only store a few causes and a few effects within ‘easy reach’. It therefore holds a very personal and limited version of ‘the truth’.
Causes and effects are stored on a shelf in our mind, for easy access. If a “similar” (in our limited perception) situation occurs, we first check the shelf in our brain to see if we can map one of the causes on the shelf to the situation. Our brain is lazy, so it’ll first try to map a known cause to a new situation. Thus we leave out even more information by applying (or attributing) a known cause to a new effect. We make assumptions all the time.
To make things worse, we tend to attribute causes to an effect in a way that improves our self-image. We selectively attribute negative effects externally (not my fault), and positive effects internally (because of me).
Events that happen to other people are mostly attributed to their personality, while effects that happen to us are mostly attributed to external factors. If we attribute the other way around (negative effects attributed internally and positive effects externally), we feel depressed (and vice versa). And there are tons more ways that our attributions are skewed (I won’t go into detail here, but check out the basics on this wikipedia article for more info if you’re curious.
So looking back at this, what do we really know about cause and effect? We have to understand that we ALWAYS jump to conclusions. It is our limitation, the achilles heel of the mind. Jumping to conclusions has brought us far (we survived this far because of it), but it might LEAD US NOWHERE. We cannot oversee the effects of “our” actions on us, let alone oversee the effects of “our” actions on the universe. Like antibiotics, once a miracle cure – now a serious threat to our wellbeing.
So, what now? Shall we just do nothing, make no assumptions about cause and effect? I think that would be a mistake (not to mention totally impossible). Our daily cause and effect thinking does help us survive. It helps us improve both our own lives, and the lives of others. We’re stuck with it, but we have to be aware of our own limitations when it comes to making sense of this universe. We have to be humble.
Take a moment and try to grasp the infinite nature of the universe. Fully understand just how vast and incomprehensible the universe is, and you’ll probably find a sense of calm humility.
This helps us remember to be careful, to be mild, to reserve judgment. This helps us stop blaming various ‘causes’ and feeling miserable about countless ‘effects’, all of which aren’t really relevant at all to the nature of reality anyway. This helps us live (dare I say it?) in harmony. Perhaps peace resides in the well-organized mind.