Invisible Influences

We need not find the invisible hand of causation….[instead] we must write our own story of how the world works

Does smoking directly cause cancer? Will throwing a pen in the air cause it to fall? In order to answer these questions, we must first understand how one thing can lead to another; in essence, causation. In this paper I will examine Hume’s argument against causation, outlining how none of our senses are able to perceive anything we can call causation, as well as the implication that has on natural laws. Following that, I will argue that we do not need to believe in any sort of causation to explain the world around us, and that believing that we require causation is due to a misunderstanding of natural laws. Finally, I will argue that it is psychologically better for us to reject the notion of causation.

When we speak of causation, we assume that it means that one thing makes another happen. When we are told that looking at the sun can cause blindness, we assume that the sun itself uses its power to damage your eyesight. This implies some sort of force that takes the one event (looking at the sun) and creates the second (loss of eyesight). We casually use causation to explain everything around us. Therefore, it is helpful to consider what it actually is. Hume argues that when we look for causation, we cannot see any force bringing a new event into existence, only one event followed by another (Hume, 49). As an empiricist, he believes that all knowledge comes from what we experience through our internal and external senses (Hume, 49).

Hume asks us to look inside ourselves and see if we can find any internal force of causation via introspection (Hume, 45). It seems as though we have the power to create new thoughts and move our limbs but Hume asks us to really examine the process that occurs. For example, when we have an original thought, it appears to us that this thought was created out of nothing. This implies an infinite power inside of us, and yet we cannot observe this power or witness the operation of how it can create something out of nothing (Hume, 48). In regards to our own bodily autonomy, we experience having the thought to move our arm, which causes our arm to move. Hume asks us to examine that further, arguing that anatomy has shown that the limb is not the first to move when we have the thought, and that instead a series of nerves that we cannot see or control translate our thought into the action (Hume, 46). Once again, we are not able to witness the causation between the two events.

We then have to look outside of ourselves to our external senses. It would appear that we witness causation often. We witness lightning in a rainstorm and hear thunder, which leads us to say that thunder is caused by lightning. Hume argues that we never actually see the lightning cause the thunder, and that we only witness the two events of lightning and thunder and imagine the story in between (Hume, 45). Certainly science has come to a place where we have expanded our explanation to say that lightning creates a channel in the air, and when it collapses, it creates a sound wave that we call thunder. However, the lightning would have to cause the air channel to open and the collapsing of the air channel would have to cause sound. Since we cannot perceive this invisible causation, we are left with the two events, thunder and lightning, and the story we tell between the two events about how the second came to be. If we cannot see causes through our external senses, we are left to agree with Hume that there is indeed no invisible hand called causation that forces events to happen.

Hume would argue that our natural laws are only the perceived repetition of events through our external senses. When we hear thunder follow lightning multiple times, we extrapolate that when we see lightning, thunder must follow. Our mind creates patterns to understand the world around us. These patterns can be a good thing because knowing what follows a red traffic light keeps us from walking into a busy road. We allow our minds to anticipate that event B (in this case, traffic) will follow event A (the red light) and this informs our decision to not step into traffic. Although we would not be able to say that the red light causes the traffic, our understanding of the laws of traffic allow us to use the red light as an indicator that there could be danger. However, if there is no causation, we cannot say that event A causes event B to happen, only that event A and event B occur together often (Hume, 52).

This line of thought creates an issue for natural laws such as gravity. We would not be able to say that gravity causes anything to fall when thrown in the air. We would only be able to witness the events of the object going up followed by the object coming back down. This seems absurd at face value because we experience gravity every day; we are taught how to calculate gravity in school and we apply our understanding of gravity to propel ships into space. If there is no gravity, how can we explain our world? Not being able to witness causation does not mean that there is no such thing as gravity. Certainly there is no physical hand of gravity that pushes things toward the earth, however, what we understand to be gravity has shown to persist over time and can be applied to new concepts such as propulsion. We can accept that the concept of gravity is the best way that we currently understand the phenomenon of being pulled toward Earth, in the same way that a red traffic light does not cause traffic, it is merely an accepted way to indicate that there could be traffic.

Instead, I believe that we misunderstand the word “laws”. When we speak of natural law, the word implies structure and order, leading us to believe that they are infallible. However, truth in science is never fixed; what is accepted today, could be discarded or built upon tomorrow. It is a living, changing story that is edited and reimagined as new information becomes available. No scientist would ever confidently call gravity a “law” that must be obeyed. Instead, it is an observed repeated phenomenon that can be accepted to a degree of scientific certainty. Hume states that we can only use experience to learn about the coexistence of events and cannot understand the causation between them, and this is absolutely the conclusion that we reach when we follow his argument (Hume, 49). In this way, science and natural laws are our best way to tell the invisible story that happens between two objects. Humans look for patterns, they keep us safe and help us understand what happens around us. We do not need causation in order to keep our natural laws as long as we accept that those laws are not fixed, that they can change as our understanding of the story between events change.

An interesting modern application of Hume’s criticism of causation is rooted in the psychological sciences. Humans are so accustomed to seeking patterns and anticipating outcomes that, coupled with our casual use of causation, we come to expect negative outcomes to events based on singular experiences. A person who was bitten by a dog may come to believe that event A (being around a dog) will cause event B (being bitten) and will then avoid dogs in the future. This comes from a fear that event A will always bring about event B without question, which is exactly what Hume tells us is untrue. An approach to treating this is Exposure Therapy, where in this instance, the person would be exposed to friendly dogs and realize that the event of being bitten and the fear that is connected is not caused by being around dogs. In separating emotions from outside stimuli and therefore accepting that one does not cause the other, the emotional response around the event is lowered. Accepting that although one event may have triggered a state of emotional distress in the past does not mean that it will absolutely happen in the future allows us to overcome unhealthy expected patterns. In essence, admitting that there is no force of causation is actually beneficial for our mental health.

In conclusion, I do accept Hume’s argument that we are not able to witness causation, but I believe that this is good. We do not need an invisible force moving things into existence in order to experience the world around us. Simply because things have happened one way in the past does not mean that it has to be that way in the future. Science appears to agree with this when we consider natural laws to not be absolute. We do not need to find the invisible hand of causation, instead we can use our human instinct toward patterning to create living stories about what happens between events, in essence, writing our own story about how the world works.

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