a slippery word

I find “causality” to be a slippery word. 

I cannot really think of any situation where I can truly say A causes B in the sense that A makes B happen. 
One can always look into a deeper level of process, where A was simply a condition for, or an influence on the processes inherent in B.  When one gets really careful about why B does what it does, it is always inherent in the way B is made.  B can only do what B can do… and it will do this under some circumstances and not others. 

correlation and causality

Most people understand the difference between correlation and causality.  For example, long legs may be correlated with fast runners, but long legs do not cause fast running.   In other words, correlation does not specify the process that leads to an observed result.  The process of becoming a fast runner requires a long process, lots of running with attention on doing it faster and faster (i.e training). Further to that one needs other conditions, such as a suitable body and adequate nutrition.  

Correlations may draw your attention to the existence of some causal connection, but more often they simply reveal relevant supportive or necessary conditions.  Nevertheless people often do confuse the two in conversation, and then end up being unclear in their thinking.

looking closer

Once a particular process has been identified, one can begin looking at how it is modified.  Many things can influence the process.  Back to our runner in training.  We can analyze the process of training and find that the hours per day, the distances run, the distribution of sprints and endurance runs… all alter the rate at which the performance increases.  They all influence the process. 

If you take a closer look you may discern that each of these operates through different underlying physiological mechanisms.  For some purposes it may be important to look at the detailed mechanisms, but for other purposes it is entirely adequate to simply consider these as influences on the general process of training. 

trends and causality

Where correlation most often gets buried as an assumed “cause” is in trends.  People see something increasing (or decreasing) correlated with the passage of time, and assume, in some strange alchemy of reasoning, that the cause for the change is the passage of time.  To be fair, I think there is an assumption that there is an underlying process, and that this will continue to operate even though the observer has not been able to discern what that process is.  However, in practice, people often make decisions as if the observed past correlation were indeed a cause.

In order to specify a causal relationship one needs to reveal a process that operates in such a way that it produces the observed result. 

structural determinism and control

Given that whatever anything will do is determined by its structure at any instant, we cannot really “control” what that thing does.  It will respond to any external trigger depending on its own current configuration.  This is true not only of its actions as a whole, but also for any internal changes.  Chemicals, heat or cold, sounds ... among many other things can lead to internal changes.

Maturana often uses the example of an electronic device, lets say a cell phone (in his era, the example was a tape recorder).  If you push the on switch, and it doesn’t turn on, you don’t go to the doctor to see if there is something wrong with your finger.  You know the concern is that something has gone amiss with the internal structure of the phone.  Your finger is only the trigger that appropriately interacts with its structure so it turns on.


direct and indirect influence

Sometimes the thing we do acts on the result we want via a
chain of further effects.  This is known as an indirect influence
(or indirect causality).  Why would you want to discriminate between a direct and an indirect influence on any given process? 

There are at least two benefits.  First, knowing the intermediate steps gives you an understanding of how the indirect influence may manifest itself in a variety of circumstances; circumstances that can change the other parts of the chain.  Second, knowing the steps makes may enable you to discern more options of how to modify the process. 

innocent beginning of causal thinking

In the midst of this somewhat conceptual material I would like to tell a story about my grandson, when he was 3. 

Little David was taken by the Disney movie “Cars” and often played racing games with his toy cars.  I was a little distressed that he was forever crashing them, and wondered where this came from as the movie didn’t venerate this violence. 
My son Kalev pointed out that David was only replicating the sequence: “first you crash, then you win.” 

influence or causality

I find it useful to speak in terms if influence rather than causality.   Where one is interested in control, the notion of cause is very attractive.  In complex ecological and social systems, control is elusive.  That does not mean that we cannot influence things, and thus manage.  It is useful to look at a situation in a way that reveals the processes whereby one thing directly influences another, and how these influences operate in chains, circles, and networks.  Thus we can “trigger” a desired response if we are acting within the structural constraints of the circumstances.

Yet we do not always know exactly what the structural details are, especially when dealing with complex, dynamic systems
(like people.)  In general, since we may achieve some aspects of a desired response but not others, I like to use the word “influence”. We do not live in a “Command and Control” cosmos!

Conversely, you can also consider the implications of any given management action on different parts of such a chain.  You may reveal that what appears logical overall (eg. contain the tailings during the season when eggs are vulnerable) does not actually work. You may for example discover that there is a lag period, or even an averaging function, in the release from groundwater to stream.

To understand the significance of any particular action (your influence), you also need to understand the context of other influences that may reverberate through the system. Yet, in order to see these, you do need to see them as constituents of a network or web.  As I will discuss elsewhere, under appropriate conditions experience with all the variables over time, coupled with attention, care and reflection,  leads to the development of expertise.  Our own nervous system is competent in synthesizing such networks of influences even when we are not able to fully describe them.

For example you could say that some chemical associated with mine tailings influences fish abundance in nearby waterways.  This is an indirect influence, and given this understanding, the only things you could do would be to alter the concentration of that chemical in the tailings and/or the amount tailings produced.   

If you consider the chain of influence from production of tailings, to the rate of release of the tailings into the groundwater, the movement from groundwater to stream;  and if you know that this chemical only influences egg survival under conditions of pH less than 6 by making the membrane permeable to a resident fungus (hypothetical situation, I know of no such actual case) – then you have a larger number of options of what you could do. 

By identifying a chain of influences you can conceivably intervene in, or modify, the overall concern in several different ways.  


Of course!  All living systems learn how one thing tends to be followed by another, and this is how they adapt their behaviour to the circumstances.  For them this isn’t “causality”, it is simply acting in coherence with the regularities they encounter in their living.  So it is for us humans, beginning with the baby who stops crying for milk as soon as the mother picks her up to feed.  However as we mature, and begin to use language, we can abstract the sequence and speak of it as “A leads to B”, and if it that is consistent enough, we may shift to thinking that A causes B.

The notion of sequence leading to causality was revealed to me the next morning when little David asked me to put my hand in the shower in order to make it warm.