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 understanding the evolutionary physical and biological laws that govern our existence. We are no closer, however, to an understanding of what will happen next.

Everything happens for a reason, but each reason has many random consequences. This is why there is cause and effect but no determination. 

Every event has a cause. This simple fact leads you 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. The only thing we can say which makes any event a certainty was that it happened, but we mistake this 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 does not mean that causality is an illusion, but it does mean that it is not linear as we imagine. As is so often the case, our folk knowledge has a way of understanding how things happen. 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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