Friday, March 19, 2010

The Three Dimensions of Causality

When I was younger, I used to think that causality was pretty simple. Either something caused something else, or it didn't. Now, I still think it's pretty simple, but I have a more complete mental model of what I think it is. Just recently, I had chinese food with my older brother, and we discussed all sorts of intriguing concepts, including the concept of causality. The topic came up when we were discussing if God was the first cause of everything, and what that means practically. Pretty soon, we realized that I was using a much more narrow definition of "cause" than he was, but after much discussion, I came to accept a broader definition of the word. In the discussion, though, we both came to realize that there just like there are three dimensions of space, there are three dimensions of causality.

The Three Dimensions

Now, before I go on to describe what I think that causality IS, let me explain what I think it isn't. I think that there is a difference because influence and cause. A cause is something that is necessary to the chain of events - without that cause, the event would not happen. Influence is merely something that inclined things in a certain direction. For example, if I flick the light switch, I am causing the light to turn on. On the other hand, if I tell my sister that I'm going to watch House, that may influence her to stop working on homework. You can see the difference. My sister would probably stop working on her homework even without my influence; my influence was not part of the necessary chain of a events and therefore was not a cause. Secondly, I do not think that causality is passive. If something is passive, it will simply allow things to keep on doing what they are already doing. You can actively push your younger brother, and you can actively block your older brother from pushing your younger brother. Those are active. If you are a pacifist, and do not block when someone tries to hit you, you have not caused them to hit you. You were passive. So, to recap those thoughts, causality is active rather than passive, and is more than just influence: It's a necessary part of the chain of events leading up to the event in question.

So, what are the three dimensions of causality? Before I explain them, I will draw a diagram to show the three dimensions. [It'll be more awesome that way]

So, one dimention is that a cause can be either direct or indirect. If my little sister takes a toy out of my little brother's hand, she directly caused him to lose possession of that toy. Mob bosses, on the other hand, don't prefer to do their own dirty work, and make things happen indirectly. If I turn on the light, even, I am the indirect cause. I cause one plastic thing to switch positions, which causes another something to switch, and the electricity flow causes the light to turn on. On the other hand, if I punch the wall, I can directly cause it to break.

Another dimention is that some things are intentional, and somethings are not intentional. I could directly cause a car accident by going into an intersection, while the light is green, while an ambulance is running a red light, but the accidently would be caused unintentionally: I simply wouldn't have known that the ambulance was going to run that red light. On the other hand, if I'm riding bumper cars, and I go out of my way to hit your car, that would be intentional.

Finally, there are many things necessary in a chain of causation. To light a candle, the candle has to be caused to exist, and I have to be caused to exist, and I must have access to a lighter of some sort, and there must be oxygen in the room, and I must be physically capable of making the lighter work, etc, etc, etc. There are many many indirect causes to anything. The guy who made the engine of the car was (indirectly) part of the chain of causation which made the two year die after being by a drunk guy driving a speeding car. That guy was only only an unintentional and indirect cause, but was also a non-determining cause. It was not his actions that set off the chain of events or determined that the girl would die. The person who choose to drive drunk was unintentionally and directly the determining cause. A mob boss, on the other hand, intentionally and indirectly, causes people's death in a way that pretty much determines that it happens. When I turn on the light switch, the electricity is a cause (for without it, the light wouldn't turn on) but I am the determining cause.

So, every cause is a cause, and yet there are different kinds of causes. I think that all causes that can truly be called "causes" can be found somewhere on this three dimensional chart. Why does this all matter? Well, it helps one sort out in one's mind just who is responsible for what. Was it little Jonny's fault that Aunt Helen got all upset because he didn't like her baking? When he promised not to turn the lights off, and then used a stick to flip the light switch, is that a legitimate excuse? It's all food for thought.