[e-lang] Types of Causality (was: Modelling Blindness)

Mark S. Miller e-lang@mail.eros-os.org
Fri, 13 Dec 2002 08:51:33 -0800

                        Types of Causality
                               -- or --
                        Did the Butler Do It?

Different kinds of subject matter and different purposes of analysis demand 
use of different kinds of causal reasoning. At one extreme is moral 
causality -- the issues of accountability, of assigning blame and 
responsibility. At the other extreme is the physicist's causality -- the 
"for want of a nail" world where everything depends of everything else. 
Between the two is the "explanatory causality" of (at least) intellectual 
and military history, where we seek explanations that help us form mental 
models of the world, of how it worked and works, and of how best we may 
effect it.

                        Moral Causality

When a murder mystery asks "Did the butler do it?", it is posing a question 
in the realm of moral causality. If the butler did it, then he is to be held 
responsible, blamed, and perhaps punished. (I am glossing over here the huge 
gulf between moral and legal reasoning.) 

I'll avoid the current e-lang example of terrorism for reasons I'll be happy 
to explain privately, and I'd like others to avoid further discussion of it 
on e-lang as well. Using the Holocaust as an example, I believe the 
consensus blame on Hitler, Eichmann, and many others is appropriate. For the 
mass murders of communism, I believe it is appropriate to blame at least 
Stalin and Mao.

                        The Causality of the Physicist

The weather is thought to be everywhere sensitive to initial conditions. 
This means that the famed "butterfly effect" is pervasive. If you go 
sufficient far back, had just about any one input been different, today's 
weather would be rather unrelated to the weather we actually have. Many 
different aspects of reality are plausibly like the weather in this regard, 
though plausibly at vastly different time scales. 

In this sense, the Holocaust and communism were caused by just about 
everything that happened in ancient Mesopotamian, including the Epic of 

                        Explanatory Causality

"The world is built from <i>systems</i>. People understand <i>stories</i>".
                                    --Alan Kay

When we look back for causal chains, often our purpose is to figure out what 
to do in the complex world we find ourselves in. This complex world is 
"actually" the result of all the causal chains the physicist might have us 
enumerate, but this "true" explanation is often too broad for figuring out 
what to do -- enumerating everything doesn't convey much more information 
that enumerating nothing. When the "what to do" is "who to blame or punish", 
then we turn to moral causality, which one hopes gives the narrowest answers.

Intermediate is what I call "explanatory causality", the world of stories 
abstracted from a complex history, simplified in order to let us build 
mental models we can use to (at least)

1) figure out how to imitate success, 
2) avoid repeating history's mistakes, 
3) project expectations of the world well beyond our data.

#1 and #2 are fairly conventional. By #3, I mean that each of us only has 
direct experience of only a tiny bit of reality. (Yes, as a good Popperian, 
I know we don't have "direct" experience of anything at all. I'm glossing 
over that.) However, we each have vast predictive models that give us 
expectations about parts of the world we haven't encountered yet. We often 
get surprised, and we hope that we're constantly adjusting our predictive 
models in light of these surprises. A major form of predictive model we're 
built to use is the causal model. However, we're built to predict not 
because predictive accuracy is an end in itself, but in order for these 
predictions lead us into taking actions that are more effective. This leads 
to a strong selective pressure on kinds of causal explanation, and in 
particular, on what kinds of simplifications we should always be making.

Unfortunately, we were not built to have a strong wall separating moral 
causality and explanatory causality, and much immoral brutality has come 
from confusing the two. Fortunately, the modern world has invented the 
concept of this wall, and this distinction does seem to be something people 
can hold in their head and successfully act on. 

When Hayek came out with "The Road To Serfdom", he was personally, bitterly, 
and viciously slandered by many representatives of the intellectual 
consensus that he was challenging. They engaged in a great smear campaign to 
label him (in different words) the great Satan of economists, and they 
succeeded for a generation. However, during his entire intellectual career, 
including this period of time, he never ever accused his enemies of anything 
other than intellectual error. I'm sure he privately felt that some blame 
would be just, and perhaps he made some private comments to this effect to 
friends (though I know of no reports of such). In the short term, he lost the 
mudslinging battle. In the long term, he won the moral high ground.

On the issue of intellectual error by itself, Hayek was quite vigorous in 
his criticism, as was he in explaining causal pathways in intellectual 
history where one mistake led to another. Hayek lived to see his ideas 
triumph, largely by virtue of his causal stories of the world, in particular 
over the pervasive (at the time) socialism and communism of the world. His 
explanations displaced previous causal stories that were in the air, that 
prevented those holding them from seeing a way out.

So, returning to our examples, we see through Hayek's stories that Darwin, 
Malthus, and Newton were among the causes of the Holocaust and communism. 
Clearly Hayek does not intend to blame these thinkers for these events -- 
indeed he has raised even further our regard for Darwin. At the same time, 
clearly Hayek means something distinct from a statement that the Epic of 
Gilgamesh caused these events. The latter statement leads to no change of 
behavior whatsoever. The "insight" it offers leaves us helpless. But by 
offering an explanation of how the ideas of socialism derived from these 
thinkers, we can understand the roots of their errors in a deeper way, in 
order to better refute these errors when they appear in other guises.

            Commentary on Recent Discussion on e-lang

Along with Tyler, I also believe we've been keeping the discussion at a 
proper non-blaming intellectual-error level. I have made personal remarks 
off list that were inappropriate, but I don't hold my private conversations 
to as high a standard. In any case, since we're all agreed about what we 
should do, we needn't engage in more exploration of what we have done.

However, I think that

At 10:32 AM 12/12/2002 Thursday, Jonathan S. Shapiro wrote:
>Let us begin by putting this paper in context.
>The Protection paper was written in 1971. Butler was 28 years old. He
>had just arrived [...]

confuses the issue yet again. I don't care who Butler was at the time, what 
his situation was, or whether this paper was labeled "workshop", "draft", or 
whatever. I would only care about these issues if I was interested in 
assessing blame, which I'm not.

I am interested in understand and explaining how the world got into its 
current screwed up state on computer security, even though the right idea 
goes back to 1966 and a scientific process was supposedly in place. I am 
especially interesting in understanding this in service of figuring out what 
to do about it. I think many of us feel that "Protection" had a crucial role 
to play in the sequence of events. I think Shap disagrees. Great, that's the 
kind of argument best explored by a hermeneutic process of interpreting of 
history, including a hermeneutic interpretation of the documents whose role 
in the history is under dispute.

Unfortunately, none of us may currently have the time for this process -- I 
know I don't. But perhaps someday... We write for future intellectual 
history as well.

Text by me above is hereby placed in the public domain