Re: [xmca] railways, explosions and principles of causality

From: Andy Blunden (
Date: Tue Jul 18 2006 - 16:55:47 PDT

Let me take a couple of examples to try to demonstrate why I am less than
enthusiastic about the direction in which you are taking this idea of
Suppose a young black man is shot down in a drive-by shooting in an urban
US district, and there is an enquiry to determine the cause. A causal
analysis could come up with the conclusion that Henry Bloggs did and
prosecute said Henry, and deny car licences to young black men to prevent
further occurrences of drive-by shootings. An alternative analysis could
come up with the conclusion that the streets are dangerous and in future
youngsters should stay off the streets. A conclusion that I am sure many
residents of these districts have come to. The result is of course to make
the streets more dangerous, by emptying them of friendly witnesses and
Suppose one year the planned economy of Poland does not produce any
needles, because someone forgot to issue the request for needles to the
state needle factory (true story), one could identify how the error
happened and introduce a new layer of bureaucracy to check that all the
orders have been issued.
So, one of the conclusions that any degree of deep thought about the
problem of causality is the point that Hegel was getting to: you have to go
beyond the immediate cause of the problem to get a notion of the whole
thing, which allows you to understand who the problem *and the defensive
measures against it* arise from the nature of the thing, it's notion.
Now, one of the criticisms of Hegel which is relevant here is the illusion
inherent in the Polish bureaucracy story, which was set up as an
alternative to the anarchy of capitalism: even in a perfect system, shit
The brush I have been having recently with "causal analysis" is with the
neuroscientists who claim that consciousness is an emergent system-level
property of the brain, and that is, that consciousness is *caused* by the
brain, and call upon complexity theory and the notion of emergence in
support of the idea. The impossibly complex pattern of neuron firing which
produces a simple thought in the mind of the person, looks on the face of
it a classic case of complexity and emergence. But it is not.

What do you think Steve?


At 08:03 PM 18/07/2006 +0000, you wrote:
>I think Ana's comments on causal analysis touch on an extremely important
>point in this causality discussion - that causality in any human activity
>is more complex ("branches out" more) than, say, the causes of chemical
>explosions, or chemical reactions in general. Ana points out that it gets
>more difficult to determine social than physical causes. This leads to a
>line of questioning on my mind.
>First, permit me some reflections on causality and complexity. We can
>usefully start with comparing a chemical explosion to a railway system,
>which seems to be emerging from our conversation. Human affairs of course
>include chemistry at every level - from the biochemistry of life, to
>handling substances, all of course chemicals, every second. But human
>affairs - such as building railway systems, running chemical factories,
>or even dropping bombs - cannot be reduced to chemical reactions. Human
>activity includes chemistry, but is also much more. In my view, in the
>ontological discussion of causality in nature, this point applies to
>causality. Just as nature exists on many levels of complexity -
>sub-atomic, cosmological, geological, chemical, biological, zoological,
>ecological, and its crowning level of complexity, the human sociological
>and psychological - so too does causality exist on multiple levels of
>complexity. Each of these domains requires its own studies to de!
> termine
> its necessary characteristics and regularities, understand the kinds of
> accidental and chance events they generate, and explore the kinds of
> causes and effects inherent to them. At the same time, all these domains
> strongly interact and intertransform and belong to a common reality.
>So here are some questions I am pondering, spurred on by Ana, Andy, Emily,
>Mike and others. On the human side, as reality becomes more complex, do
>we lose the ability to determine causes? Why would that be so? What
>could change that? On the ontological side, as we move up a so-called
>hierarchy of complexity, what happens to causality? Combining the two
>lines of questioning, and following an implication of my monist view of
>nature, can universal principles of causality be developed that apply
>across all domains of reality and levels of complexity, from the chemical
>to the psychological? How could this be done? Who has laid the
>groundwork for such an endeavor?
>- Steve
> > On Jul 16, 2006, at 4:24 PM, Ana Marjanovic-Shane wrote:
> >
> > > This is a very interesting way to find causes -- I did not know
> > > that it had a formal name, too.
> > > I think that the railroad example is a little different kind of
> > > "cause" than the mostly physical causes you quoted in your example.
> > > I mean -- the reason for railroad gouge being 4 feet 8 1/2" -- is
> > > not the same as a cause of an explosion. This particular RR gouge
> > > was not an inevitable effect when that width was set for the first
> > > time (whenever it might have happened) in the same sense as when
> > > you have all the conditions for an explosion to take place. At any
> > > point of time, this gauge might have been changed and it wasn't
> > > because it was: costly, impractical, not considered, a coincidence,
> > > etc. It still might change in the future... So in a way -- it is
> > > "caused" by the Roman (or earlier) chariots/wagon makers and
> > > corresponding road fitting, but in a way -- there are many more
> > > branches of causes than in physical causality that it becomes
> > > difficult to call it a "cause". It was certainly "enabled" by all
> > > the different decisions along the historical path, and these
> > > decisions were made in many ways we don't know from the shorthand
> > > example.
> > > If we compare this with the "cause" for the QWERTY keyboard -- both
> > > were products of a certain kind of thinking and reasoning to solve
> > > a particular practical issue at hand. But they were not the ONLY
> > > possibilities at that time. So if Apollo reasoning defined
> > > branching going backwards in time, I think that this kind of
> > > "causality" has branches in both directions in time...
> > > Maybe I am wrong... > > Ana
> > >
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Andy Blunden, for Victorian Peace Network, phone +61 3 9380 9435
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