Theories and speculations

An Essay on Causality

Determination is the enduring mystery for the human imagination. We have very exact languages for describing causality but none of them can see a bus coming. We have constantly tried to fill the void that is our knowledge of the future, first by imagining gods, then by attempting to understand evolutionary, physical and biological laws that govern our existence. We are no closer, however, to an understanding of what will happen next.

Every event has a cause. This simple fact leads us to believe that causality is linear and that there is an ongoing chain of events. But the cause of each event that happened could also have been the cause of many, if not an infinite number of other events that did not. And the event which in retrospect appears to have been determined by a cause, and therefore a certainty, was in reality a random event, which was only one possible event of many. Everything happens for a reason, but there are many possible reasons, and sometimes it seems that no single event is certainly caused by any of them. Equally each reason we identify has many future random consequences. This is why we can talk freely about cause and effect but still fail utterly at determination. The only thing we can say which makes any event a certainty was that it happened, but we often identify a cause and then mistake the fact that it happened for the idea that it was certain to happen. Before the event, it was only possible, as the next event will be, and the only predictive method we can use is probability. Some consequent events are likely, others less so – but as we know that does not mean that a less likely event will not happen. We are constantly surprised by the unexpected. 

This may seem self evident, but it has a number of consequences which may seem less so. In fact, it has three, quite distinct consequences. The first and most obvious of these is that the ‘chain’ of events we imagine is not a chain at all but the observation of a series of clusters of possible events. To understand what I mean by this, imagine walking through a rain shower, and then imagine this ‘event’: we are hit by a certain raindrop, in a certain place, at a certain time. The raindrop that hits us is one of a cluster of possibilities broadly forming ‘rain shower’. Imagine that all the possible events we encounter are like this rain shower. They all occur, as possibilities, at the same time, and we can only have any idea which event has happened in retrospect. The second consequence is that, once an event has ‘happened to me’, ‘I’ am no longer an objective observer. Clearly, the raindrop will only hit ‘me’, in that way, in that place, once. It will not hit me again, at that time and in that place, and it will not hit anyone else. So while, before the event, I might imagine that it is an objective fact that if I walk in rain I will be hit by rain drops, my specific experience cannot be confirmed by someone else experiencing the same specific event. It is unique to me. (This doesn’t not of course mean that I cannot concede that others must experience similar events.) And the third consequence is that no identical event can happen. I cannot be hit by the same drop twice, or be in two different places, or be elsewhere at the same time. (Again, this does not mean that I would not conclude that similar events must happen.)

So a world in which cause and effect are not linear is rather different to the one we normally imagine. We have no power of prediction. We have no power of objective observation. And nothing that happens anywhere, to anyone, can ever be repeated. We can say that no single event is absolutely predictable, observable or repeatable.

In order to survive, we have developed ways of dealing with this. We calculate probabilities in relation to future events, similar observers and repeated events, or, in the normal course of everyday life, we imagine them. Imagination plays a constant and irreplaceable role in our lives.

Tantalisingly, and even paradoxically, we can easily identify cause and effect in retrospect. But even this is uncertain. We find very quickly that our version of events may not be identical to others’, and may even directly oppose them. We find ourselves doing exactly the same things in order to negotiate this uncertainty retrospectively as we do prospectively. We calculate probabilities or use our imagination.

We are able to do all this because of the nature of time. The fact that there is no perceptably linear chain of events doesn’t mean that there is no cause and effect. It just makes our understanding of cause and effect subject to probability, or, again, to imagination.

You might read this essay to this point and object, where is the evidence?

The first and most compelling evidence supporting my argument is that although you know what has happened today, you have no idea what will happen next. While you know why you woke up at 7am (the alarm clock rang) you do not know for certain whether you will wake up at 7am tomorrow. This is only possible if it is true first that there is linear cause and effect and second that there is no determination other than via probability or imagination.

(Of course, you can imagine that whatever happens is predetermined in any number of ways. But if you want to know what time you will wake up tomorrow you are then no nearer understanding. The imagining of organising beings or worlds or structures is exactly that – just a way of using probabilistic calculation or imagination.)

We also find strong evidence in the language we use. We often speak of events gaining or losing momentum. This is because if one less probable event happens it can make a subsequent event more likely, and then the occurrence of those two events may make a third event very highly probable and then the next, until we have a chain of events that looks almost determined for a while. What once looked a faint possibility can become a near certainty in this way. Events have gained a momentum which is explicable only by the fact that they have happened. We can however be absolutely certain of one thing, which is that no caused event is ever absolutely certain. All momentum will be time limited and fade, and it will be overtaken by a new surge which may be quite contrary to current expectation. If we accept that these surges of occurrences happen it is not a huge leap to image them as waves. Two factors make events wavelike. First, any event can occur at any time and is merely more or less probable; and second, the occurrence of one event influences and changes the probability others, so any one event causes a ripple as it were among all possible subsequent events, as it changes the probabilities attached to them.

What makes event waves very different to the waves we see crashing into the beach is simply that they are not immediately visible. They exist in an extra dimension, which confusingly makes them appear not to exist in the ones we are familiar with. They do not have a three dimensional existence. Waves of causality do of course govern physical events, but they exist across a fourth dimension of time space that includes the future. What is even more confusing is that this extra dimensional time is different from measured time. A wave rolling into a beach takes time, but the time unfurls with the wave, as we watch. Measured time is observed and always ends at the latest in the present. How can it end in the future? This kind of time is part of three dimensional existence. Time space is different to measured time. Time space is the whole of space that time occupies. Measured time is like a path on a huge landscape. It is a means of crossing and measuring a space but it is not the space. Time space is the entire landscape stretching across the perceived past and future. The space includes the time it might take for all possible future events to happen. It also includes the time it might have taken for all the things that might have happened in the past to happen. It is the broad landscape which meant that all those possible, probable and improbable events might have happened, across which we picked our linear and uncertain path. We are used to perceiving, understanding and trying to remember within this huge landscape. Nobody has arrived at the present by exactly the same path. It is the reason why we all remember differently, and why even our common histories have versions and interpretations which become more diverse and uncertain the further back we go.  

This is why causality is such a confusing concept. Present and past events do appear to be linear and causal. We perceive them like that because they are the path we walk. But like the path they are just a track across a landscape and they blind us to the space they cross. This is why in the famous quantum experiment particles that are actually travelling in waves appear when observed to travel in straight lines.

It is only when we consider future events that the wave form of events is revealed. We cannot see future events of course, but like travellers on the path we know that they lie all around us. We can feel them. We can feel them because they are of the same kind as present and past events. We can say with certainty that if the future is not determined by anything except probability and momentum it follows that all events and apparent chains of causality are indeterminate in the same way. Or that the future is determinate to the same degree as the present and past. It is a strange thought, but it is true. We have an indistinct sense of the paths we did not travel, a shaky knowledge of the path we are on, and a vague sense of the possible journeys of the future. We also have an understanding of where we are in movement of the waves of events that carry us. We might be on a roll, or at a low or high point. We constantly rise and fall. Whatever happens, we go with the flow. This is all familiar language. 

The landscape of time space too is more familiar to us than we might at first think. This is because we constantly explore it. We do this by telling and listening to stories. Time space is the land of fiction. In fiction we track other sometimes multiple paths of other selves. Fiction can be deceptive, manipulating, indulgent, alluring, challenging, provocative, hilarious, surprising and insightful in equal measures because it shows us these other paths, sometimes paths we had not considered and could not even previously imagine. Through stories, we have lived our whole lives surrounded by the waves of time space. We live among them. We can no more perceive this wave motion than the motion of the tiniest particles. But like them, the future exists nevertheless.

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