donderdag 2 augustus 2012

Some thoughts... 'The' Cause (?)

The people who know me, know that I tend to reject the notion of ‘the’ cause. Let’s explore the concept a bit. I believe there are two main variations on ‘the’ cause.

1. A simple philosophy about causal relationships. Everything that happens has just one cause.
2. The elevation of one particular cause as the most important.
3. A very strict definition of the word cause
Re 1: Monocausality

I do believe in the existence of simple accidents with a straightforward linear causal sequence (and have experienced some), not unlike the one below where each effect is basically the cause of the next effect until we come to the final consequence. Working backwards from the final consequence we’ll have a continuous sequence of why - because relationships. E.g. I’m on my way out (context, not cause), change my mind and turn around abruptly only to bump into the door that closes behind me. Some cases might be that simple that causal chains even may be restricted to just one cause and one effect…

Often, however, the world is not quite that simple and causal paths develop more or less independently, only to join up at some point causing some outcome. Please see the example discussed elsewhere on this blog; I don’t see how that can be turned into one linear sequence without dismissing a number of essential factors.

Re 2: More important causes

Are some causes more important than others? In some sense, yes. Especially if one defines preventive and corrective actions to remove them one may want to focus more on one cause than on others. But that’s then ‘more important’ in the sense of prioritizing resources and actions, not ‘more important’ in a causal sense.

In a causal sense it’s a bit more difficult… Leaving aside the discussion if an underlying (or root) cause is more important than a direct cause (we may get back to that issue another day), I find it hard to say that cause A is more important than cause B because it caused the incident more than the other cause… If an investigation has established that both were necessary for the incident to happen I cannot maintain that one should be ranked above the other.

Take the lab example: both not wearing goggles and mixing the ingredients wrongly are needed for chemical substances hitting the eye of the victim. How can one be more important than the other? Sure one might argue that the wrong mixing is the point of loss of control, or the first barrier breached. But still, both are needed for the defined incident.

For now I remain unconvinced that some causes are more important than others. But please supply viewpoints of your own.

Re 3: Strict definitions

Some define the word cause very strictly, for example by only allowing a deliberate act, or discarding conditions as causes (see elsewhere). Or by limiting the meaning to the direct cause (which in effect boils down to option 1). The added value of this isn’t quite clear to me so far - apart from eventual legal use… or as an alternative for what I often would call a direct cause (like in the lab example). But my opinion on the value may change as discussion progresses and knowledge grows…

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