Cause and Effect: Convenient Storytelling

When the past and the future are seen in the timeless now, as parts of a common pattern, the idea of cause-effect loses its validity and creative freedom takes its place.

– Nisargadatta Maharaj

Of all the scientific theories set for retirement, cause-and-effect tops the list, says W. Daniel Hillis, a physicist and computer scientist, in an essay on Edge. Causation makes perfect sense when you’re considering the movements of roller coasters or launching satellites into orbit. Even computers are intricately designed cause-and-effect machines, with components carefully engineered so that input lead to outputs, but not the other way around.

The whole concept of cause-and-effect, though, is an illusion designed to help us cope with and control the world—a “convenient personification of nature [that] helps us use our mental storytelling machinery to explain the natural world.” From an evolutionary standpoint, it is beneficial for the human nervous system to identify consequences of our decisions.

This convenient story of cause-and-effect, though, breaks down when the outputs are no longer content to act only as responders, and instead affect the parts of the world formerly known as inputs. This is most obvious in quantum mechanics, where a distant particle can change its state whenever we observe a closer entangled particle.

But cause-and-effect is not just inadequate at the quantum scale, says Hillis. Other systems contain a flow of information that doesn’t follow the plot of our usual storytelling—including the way the human mind works, the biochemical pathways inside a living organism and economic transactions. “These systems all have patterns of information flow that defy our tools of storytelling. A gene does not “cause” the trait like height, or a disease like cancer. The stock market did not go up “because” the bond market went down. These are just our feeble attempts to force a storytelling framework onto systems that do not work like stories. For such complex systems, science will need more powerful explanatory tools, and we will learn to accept the limits of our old methods of storytelling. We will come to appreciate that causes and effects do not exist in nature, that they are just convenient creations of our own minds.”


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