It’s been a while since writing my last post. I have probably a dozen blog articles at about 50-75% completion. Partly, I made a big effort to do outdoorsy stuff and not be in front of a computer. Partly, my day job has been enough to tie up my brain. Partly, because there are a few rotten concepts in my mind and I don’t know what to do with them. By rotten concepts, I mean ideas that don’t make sense anymore. One of the issues with writing a blog is that it is always there to remind you of how confident you used to be in an idea that had no solid base.

I don’t want to go all Nietzsche on everyone.  I don’t think his philosophy made him nuts, he was just nuts. If you don’t know the story, he went crazy and died. Before that he started to think that a lot of the world was built on rotten ideas. “Gott is tot” and all that.


Serious people want answers. The heroic general/president/CEO/whoever in the movie always wants a straight answer from the scientist. Just the facts please! There is a good reason, executives have to keep things moving. That’s their job. But…well I had a boss once that used to say: “Let’s do something…even if its wrong!” That’s fine. The bias to action is useful.

On the flip side, there are no shortages of people using ideas without understanding them, with terrible consequences. In one of Robert Sapolsky’s great courses he tells a story about one such case. I’ll try to summarize:

At the end of the 1800’s, people didn’t know what was causing what we now call sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Scientists of the day autopsied the victims and found an issues with the thymus glands. They were too big, at least compared to the ones in the textbooks (key detail). As a result, to prevent SIDS, wealthy parents were opting to have radiation focused on their healthy babies’ thymus glands. The radiation would stunt the growth of the thymus to ‘normal’ size. Long story short, a lot of these babies got cancer later in life and died. The worst part? The babies were healthy. The thymus glands in the textbooks of the day were improperly measured. These children didn’t need any intervention. The intervention killed them.

The reason the textbooks were wrong? Scientists did their initial work on the thymuses of poor, malnourished, or otherwise unhealthy infants…the average of this sample was a stunted thymus. So all of the very brilliant scientists took this as reality, and misdiagnosed normal thymuses later on. They then gave several thousands of babies cancer.

In Sapolsky’s words:

Be very careful when deciding what counts as a normal state because once you’ve decided what normal is—convinced yourself of it and pronounced it—you have forever distorted your ability to look at an exception to that supposed normality and see it for what it really is.

Robert Sapolsky, Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science. Lecture 5: Poverty’s Remains

It strikes me that the reason there are so many stories like the one above is that we don’t really know how to deal with evidence/information/cause and effect.

Almost everyone thinks it is simple. You drop an apple, it falls. Gravity causes it to fall, good enough for Newton. Never mind that we don’t know what gravity is. Einstein thought he got it, but Einstein’s model doesn’t work on the quantum level(?) I’m not a physicist, so its out of my depth.  There are over 10 theories on Wikipedia that try to deal with it. I take that to mean that we really don’t know what causes gravity. It just is. Regardless, for us peons, gravity is a perfectly fine explanation for the apple. We know that it has something to do with the mass of an object, we’ll stick with Newton…unless we have to launch something into space. Again. Beyond the scope of this blog.

It gets to the heart of what is bugging me. We accept different answers for A causes B, depending on the question that is asked. What caused me to write this sentence? Is it a hormonal soup or the quest for the examined life? Both answers are true and false, yes and no.


The ancient geeks thought that there are perfect forms for all objects in the universe, and all objects strive to achieve perfection. If a circle isn’t perfectly round, oh baby, it wants to be. This is called teleology.

Aristotle put down four types of cause for something. Everything is striving for the telos (perfection), so there are goals for all things, and the four causes are just different ways of documenting aspects of the teleology(?) I’m not entirely sure about that. Anyway, here are the four causes:

  1. The material cause
    • If you asked, what is a car made out of? Someone answers: “steel”…the materials that formed the object in question are the material cause. Also, the change materials had to undergo to be come a car. So the steel was transformed physically to a different shape to form a car, plus some other materials, etc…No steel, no car. More or less.
  2. The formal cause
    • In this case, being a car is the formal cause.  The materials were manipulated (the material cause), but the idea of the final shape of the materials also caused the car to appear the way it does. There is a shape or form that steel has to to be in order to be a car. The fact that cars exist, in general, is why a specific arrangement  of steel is a car, and not a ‘not-car’..
  3. The efficient cause
    • People make cars. Steel doesn’t naturally occur. Cars are created. No people to manipulate materials, no cars. No people to have the idea of what a car is: the formal cause, no cars. The efficient cause of a car is that people made a car.
  4. The final cause
    • People make cars because they want cars. The wanting caused the people to think about pulling rocks out of the ground and hammering them into shapes called cars.


The four causes are not really part of the idea of cause-and-effect for a materialist. A materialist is someone who thinks the fundamental laws of physics completely document all cause-and-effect relationships in the world, and if we had enough data and the physical laws all neatly sorted out, we could predict every single thing that happens.

So there is only the material cause. It’s all just particles bouncing around out there. Nothing else to it. Everything is already set in motion, and there is no other way for it to unfold.


Complexity offers something else. If you have 45 minutes, this guy really gets into it:

If not…TLDR; He goes back to Aristotle, and adds a bit.

The key idea is that information is something other than matter. Information is stored by the arrangement of matter, but physical laws do not govern information. Not exactly.

We can’t ever predict how information will cause particles to move, but information causes particles to move all of the time. So Aristotle’s four causes are relevant again (sorry materialists).

If I search for a sandwich on my smartphone, I set forth a set of actions (and equal-and-opposite reactions) that hopefully leads to some atoms arranged as a sandwich to end up somewhere near my stomach…some may end up on my shirt, like a bit of the mustard.

In some sense, information caused sandwiches. People invented sandwiches, which exist as information when no sandwiches are around…these are only sandwishes. People like sandwiches, and people want sandwiches, and they cause matter to become sandwiches. Thus, the cause of a particular sandwich depends on what question you ask. Reality is not a giant Rube-Goldberg machine…or is it?


I too often get pulled into debates that are simplistic. Is it A or B causing C? Or, what is your opinion on matter XYZ? It isn’t clear that people actually want to discover truth. Rather there is a quest for something else: for things to make sense.

From Aristotle, its clear that there is a set of diagnostics that requires at least four levels of thinking. Allowing multiple truths to exist in confluence. But it’s the final cause that gets glossed over in a lot of our public thinking. Most of what we see out there in society has the bottom-up and the top-down cause. However, so much of the reasoning out there is either top-down or bottom-up in exclusion. Take a really simple example:

A collectivist is someone who is concerned with top-down, ie wealth is created by society as a whole through cooperation. An individualist sees bottom-up, i.e. wealth is created because individuals make sacrifices that pay off. Both cases are true. And, yet, we have a politics of Socialists (collectivists) vs. Capitalists (individualists)…it’s astonishing how much these two political camps shout past each-other. Both are correct (to some degree), and that must mean the other is wrong…it leads to some terrible, tribal politics. I would be willing to bet most people exist in a superstate of both individualism and collectivism, and the true value system is effected by observation (the question you ask them) like Shroedinger’s political cat.

Consider, also the realm of education. There is a glaring defect. It’s also odd that we only test students’ ability to answer questions, and not their ability to ask questions…seems like we’ll only ever measure have half the ability of people. And..think about how much of our society rests on the fundamentalist belief system that tests tell us who is smart.

Consequently, next on my reading list: Ask More


4 thoughts on “Causation

  1. Glad you’re back. I enjoyed your concise explanation of teleology. I am curious about your “rotten concepts” but I know what you mean about writing stuff down and then years later coming back to realize how dumb you (I) were. Now I usually leave my rotten concepts on other people’s comments sections. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: #HangoverSaturdayBlog | dilletante thoughts

  3. Pingback: Book: Ask More | dilletante thoughts

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