Systemic causation and the authoritarian mindset

Cause and Effect, it is a simple enough concept on the surface of it. This causes that, right? I for example caused these words to be written by typing them out in open office on my nice little Linux PC. So in this example I am the agent of causation that resulted in the words being recorded. Not all agents of causation need be personal or consciousness, consider that right now outside the ground is completely wet, the agent of causation is the fact that it has been raining all damn day long.

Examples of people making decisions and acting on them to effect a change are examples of what is called direct causation. There are many examples of this that don’t involve people such as my example of rain falling on the ground causing it to become wet, however what is important is that these are relatively simple systems of cause and effect. There is a another class of cause and effect known as systemic cause and effect or systemic causation. In systemic causation you have many individual and seemingly separate causes culminating into a single and large effect. To add to the complexity of this there are non linear mechanisms often in play as well that can make prediction impossible.

In my example of the rain while the cause and effect of making the ground wet is simple enough the reason for why it is raining in the first place is not. Weather is a example of systemic causation. The number variables is vast, the sun, the size and shape of the continent, the direction of the wind as determined by Coriolis effect, the distance to the ocean… and so on. You have a vast array of things systematically interacting with each other to create the effect. Now with nonlinear mechanics we can have emergent causation from systemic causation.

Emergent phenomena are where feed back loops arise from the interactions of all the agents of causation in the given system. Negative feedback tends to drive a system to stability or to stay the way it is, while positive feedback tries to drive the dynamics of the system in a new direction. Consider the feedback loops in the interactions of cooling water falling from the sky. If the temperature is right these feedback loops will create a new emergent order, the perfect symmetry of a snow flake. Or in the case of turbulence in a heated liquid, the feedback loops of the water molecules interacting with each other will drive the system to create Hadley cells, nearly perfect hexagonal fluid cells of motion within the liquid or gas.

We tend to over look or not dwell on the full import of these observations when considering the universe as a whole. Non linear systemic causation is to put it bluntly, difficult to understand and at a gut level profoundly counter intuitive. The examples of convection cells and snow flakes are really very simple examples of systemic causation. Take a big enough step back and one realizes that the process described by the biological theory of evolution is a prime example of systemic causation. Order and complexity from none order and none complexity. For those with a grounding in the relevant sciences and a understanding of the processes involved this is not a crazy idea, it makes sense and is elegant. If you are such a person try however for a moment and pretend despite your understanding that you don’t. Try to purge your mind of all the knowledge pertinent to this and imagine if someone told you that cows turned into whales.

If all your understanding came from concrete experiences and you had little in the way of abstract thinking you would think the idea was absurd and in your defense you would be justified in thinking so. The sad fact is that that without a good education people find it difficult to think beyond the immediate here and now, to abstract out to higher order concepts and thus grasp vast and complex systems and that leads me to the point my post, authoritarians don’t get it!

Authoritarians broadly speaking are people that believe for one reason or other that a particular source of knowledge, a sacred text for example is the final answer and everything must be evaluated in light of what it has to say. Authoritarians as a group generally fail at abstract thinking and as a consequence fail to grasp systemic causation. Unless it is a simple and direct case of this causes that in the immediate of the here and now, it is not so much not believed as it is they don’t even understand it. You see it in the continual miss characterizations of evolution by creationists exemplified by such questions as “if men evolved from apes, why are there still apes” or “why don’t horses evolve wings then” or lastly the poster child for straw-men example of “why don’t we see dogs turning into cats then Mr smartly pants”.

The thing to keep in mind is not that the questions are straw-men, we already know that, but that to the theistic authoritarian these are actually valid questions. They don’t want to understand, what they know is that they look around and don’t see animals turning into other types of animals and that is the end of it. Without concrete examples they are not going to get it, abstract concepts about systemic causation expressed over vast periods of time is beyond their reach or desire to reach. We can discuss DNA mutations, environmental pressures and evidentiary retrodictions all day and it will not matter, we cant point to a dog turning into a cat and that is the unsophisticated child like interaction with the world that is their primary basis for knowledge. Well that and the dictates of their scared text. The problem is really two fold, one lack of understanding of systemic causation and emergent phenomena and two the conclusions of an investigation into such systems contradicts their simple pat answers from the authority of their acceptance.

In my arguments with ideologues of one strip or another the thing that shines through is the childlike and immature behavior. You bring up evidence and it is as if they were plugging their ears and saying loudly lah.. lah.. lah… You try to describe the complex emergent phenomena and their eyes glaze over or they stoutly refuse to believe that such things are even possible.

I once had a discussion with a creationist in a Japanese restaurant. The creationist flatly denied that reality ever furnished an example of complexity arising from non complexity unless it was directed by some intelligence, such as man building a bridge for example. I pointed down to her meso soup which had nearly perfect hexagonal patters of cell convection as it cooled. I asked her to disrupt them by stirring the soup and sure enough they were destroyed. However as we both watched they reformed within a minute. In fact as long as their was enough heat in the soup they would continue to reform all on their own. Feedback loops in the interactions between the individual molecules of the soup created by simply following their identity created an emergent order. No designer required for this. She was simply amazed by this simple example of non linear dynamics and asked over and over what was causing this to happen. She had great difficulty in conceptually grasping my explanation because it exceeded in scope and complexity direct causation.



  1. #1 by Derik on April 20, 2012 - 7:17 pm

    ok Mr. Smarty Pants, what is the cause of my wonderful little Linux PC producing perfect snowflakes? Hmmm??? sorry had to.

    Oh, and why are you using Open Office and not Libre Office?

  2. #2 by rustyjustin on April 20, 2012 - 9:49 pm

    you know I am in fact using libra office, I just typed that out of habit:)

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