Friday, March 1, 2024

Causality, psychology and randomness

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The great English philosopher David Hume argued that we can’t deduce causality from a seeming series of events. According to him, a temporal sequence of events can in no way establish causality between them, and the way we perceive them to be causally connected is largely arbitrary. Emmanuel Kant stated that this insight is such a profound one that it woke him from his dogmatic slumber. However, Behavioral Psychology has certainly a whole different story to recount, holding a special relevance in the case of psychology of science. Behavioral Psychology is here deeply enriching to explain why such linearization is innate to our nature.

In 1950, American psychologist John Garcia conducted a series of experiments on rats to show that how they are predisposed to see a causal connection between the events. Overall validity of such a ratomorphic view, as Arthur Koestler would have said, can be definitely questioned, but can be appreciated for their overall efficacy to gain an insight for further studies on human psychology. Presented with the trials consisting of electric shock, noisy flashing light, sweetened water and stomachache, the rats were able to associate electric shock with the noisy flashing light, and unusually sweetened water with the stomachache. As it seems, causalization is how we invariably operate, as put forth brilliantly by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach: we make inferences all the time, but these inferences are not based on text-book logic; they are based on the logic of causality.

It has been observed with much regularity that human beings are pathological causal theorist; given an effect, no matter how complex in its overall structure, we are almost automatically drawn to theorize its cause. The issue becomes more critical, when there is a presence of statistical correlation between the two; according to famous psychologist Richard Nisbett, correlation automatically provokes causation. As it seems, we are hardwired to misunderstand feedbacks, dynamics, multiplicity and complexity. It is not going to come to us with ease that not everything can be linearly reduced to a singular cause. It seems like somehow for any effect we observe, we are innately predisposed to look for causes, and its further theorization. Nicholas Taleb has mentioned how Bloomberg News following the arrest of Saddam Hussein flashed a headline at 13:01:.U.S. treasuries rise; Hussein capture may not curb terrorism. At 13:31, they released the next bulletin: U.S. Treasuries fall; Hussein capture boosts allure of risky assets. The media had somehow causally, of course ridiculously, connected the arrest of Saddam Hussein for the mundane rise and fall of market. On the same note, it is not very uncommon in Nepal to causally relate the rise of corruption and bad governance to isolated reasons, such as the abolishment of monarchy. Rather than appreciating the fact that corruption in a developing country is a complex and extremely non-linear phenomenon, with multiple feedback; economic, cultural, psychological, and of course probabilistic, the intelligentsia and media are generally revered for their linear and causalistic narrative based on the reduction of problem to a singular person, epoch or an agenda.

On top, we are also very awful probabilists, unable to see that the sequence of events can also be totally random. In “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman recounted a story of how an Israeli flight instructor claimed that punishment works better than reward to improve the performance of flight cadets. However, according to the author, what he may have been observing was a phenomenon called regression to the mean. Irrespective of reward or punishment, the performances tend to gravitate around the average performance purely as a statistical phenomenon. Poor performance is generally followed by improvement and good performance tends to deteriorate; not necessarily because of reward or punishment, but just because of the way how our world works. Here a so-called phenomenon called Hawthrone Effect is also of relevance. It was observed that the workers at a place called Hawthrone Works started working more diligently after change in the illumination of floor’s lighting. The immediate conclusion was the causal connection between improved performance and the level of illumination. On closer observation, however, it was observed that the workers were found to be motivated by the accentuated attention of the employer (they linked improved floor’s lighting to their employer’s attention), usually ignored in the normal cases.

The innate cognitive preference for causal theorization, our disregard for randomness and our urge to fulfill a dyadic completion might certainly have some evolutionary advantage to our pre-historic kins when our contemporary space-time was a much simpler manifold.

A special case of causal theorization, as discussed by the psychologists Daniel M. Wegner and Kurt Grey in their book “The Mind Club: who thinks, what feels and why it matters” named as dyadic completion is also of relevance here. For instance, in case of global warming, the believers love to depict warming-ridden Earth as the victim, while the industrial-corporate complex driven solely by greed (according to them) is the evil villain. According to the authors, in consonance to their experimental works, perceptions of victimhood arise not from an effortful justification, but automatically from the make-up of our dyadic moral minds. It is not unnatural that we are bound to depict inanimate world as the helpless victim, and the industrial complex with all their technological appendages, on the other side, to be the agentful culprit, thus establishing dyadic completion purely because of our psychological make-up.

But is it really the case? Or is it our epistemic arrogance to think ourselves to be endowed with sufficient agency to actually affect the course of mother Earth? Where will be of our agency if the tectonic plates decide to adjust rather abruptly to insinuate a rather large earthquake?  An eruption of a super-volcano at Toba, Indonesia nearly 74,000 years ago lowered the temperature of earth to such an extent that the whole human race was reduced to a population of a few thousands. The reason we associate more agency to humankind, rather than the earth, is because of our infallible belief on science and technology, which is further architectured by our innate preference for causal theorization, dyadic completion and utter disregard for randomness on the backdrop.

This innate cognitive preference for causal theorization, our disregard for randomness and our urge to fulfill a dyadic completion might certainly have some evolutionary advantage to our pre-historic kins when our contemporary space-time was a much simpler manifold. But it is a high time to realize that we are a complex life-form with a complex cognitive behavior living in a complex universe immersed in an equally complex socio-economic cultural fabric; such that our innate non-probabilistic-causalistic outlook is no longer adequate to address its novel manifestations.

The article is an excerpt from his book “Relational Universalism: A Search for an Integral Understanding of Cosmos, Life and Consciousness” published in 2020 through Amazon Direct Publishing.

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