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Three Types of Causality
Moral, Physical, Explanatory

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

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 Gilgamesh.

Explanatory Causality

The world is built from systems. People understand stories.
--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 Past 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.

Unless stated otherwise, all text on this page which is either unattributed or by Mark S. Miller is hereby placed in the public domain.
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