Some thoughts about cause and effect and science

Reading right now: David Hume’s “Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding”

First off, I can’t help noting how pertinent this book is, even though it was written, what, 300 years ago? The English is not that tough for a regular reader, though some archaic words (“Shew” for “show”, “connexion” for “connection” come to mind) might make a modern English reader furrow his brow a bit.

Hume goes to great lengths when discussing how human beings perceive cause and effect, a subject I always found fascinating, as it is pivotal to all human science and is probably one of the most important concepts human beings deal with.

It’s very easy to embrace the popular opinion about science and blithely regard it as the key to enhancing human knowledge, but I don’t think something so important is to be taken so lightly. To this very moment, I still regard the metaphysical assumptions lying at the foundations of science as tentative, as they always will be. I don’t think it’s otherwise possible. I leave certainty to those who are done asking questions (and receiving answers, at that).

One of the first things you study as a science major is the concept of the scientific method. I’m pretty sure the original concepts I’m going to mention aren’t seen for the first time in Hume’s work, but it’s probably one of the oldest instances in which these concepts are written of in such detail.

One such important concept is the idea of “control groups”. Make no mistake, Hume didn’t speak of this exact term, but it’s easy to notice that Hume writes of the metaphysical foundation of this technique.

In science, a “control group” is a set of experiments performed on “regular” or “normal” samples. Say, if you want to run an experiment about the novel traits of mutant bacteria, a “control group” would be a group of  normal (“wild type”) colonies.

Hume wrote that the only way we can say that one cause has only one effect is by removing that one cause and seeing the lack of our purported effect. A different way of putting this would be “variable isolation”. If you knock out the very thing you’re testing, and spell out the difference between the “test group” and the control, you can support the idea that this or that of a cause leads to this or that of an effect.

Consider the fact that the sun rises every day, roughly at the same morning morning (give or take a few hours). If somehow, by magic, I would get up every morning exactly an instant before the sun rises, I could be lead to believe that the sun rises because I woke up. Once something like that is said, a viable hypothesis is born. Hume writes, and this is probably a very early version of this idea, that once you have a certain object or event, you can come up with an infinite number of causes leading to it. At the same time, he notes that it is possible (yet this is impossible to prove) that any certain object or event has an exclusive (though possibly co-existing with others) cause for its existence.

In the example above, a simple way to test my hypothesis would be to wake up 2 hours later than usual, and see that the sun rises with or without my help.
Hume didn’t address (yet, anyway, I’m not done with the book) the fact that supporting experiments aren’t absolute proof, which is something I expect early philosophers like him to tackle.

The black fact is, I think, that no matter how much support we may garner for our hypothesis (by failing to disprove it, we succeed in supporting it) – there is no metaphysical basis (that I know of) that can ascertain the validity of any given hypothesis. A theory can work, a conjecture can become useful, predictive – but metaphysically speaking, there is no intrinsic basis for anything in man-made science. Positive relativists take this truth a few miles too far and say that the darnest conviction of any idiot is as worthy as the collective works of countless scientists and philosophers, working and building up our knowledge in the centuries following the enlightenment.

Personally, I don’t take that view, and probably never will (unless I go mad, of course. Madder, anyway). But truth be told: I can’t prove why I’m right, and I firmly believe that I can’t. This is a long stride from where I started when I first got into science (thanks to the evolution-creationism war drama): “Science is right, religion/creationism is wrong”.

I don’t think that way anymore, although the difference is more subtle than it may first appear. It’s not as though I think that science is wrong and creationism is right. It’s not even as though I think creationism “might be right”. The evolutionary outcome of all this dabbling with philosophy and metaphysics is that I can only say why I think science is right and creationism is wrong. I can’t say that I know for certain pretty much anything. I can conjecture why people would follow mythology and pseudoscience despite my very best efforts at explaining why science is superior to all of these. As a science-minded person, I am pretty sure I realize why, too.

I think once I came into this realization, the warlike “edge” that the creationism-evolution “war” had was gone. I don’t slam my head on the wall every time someone repeats an old creationism canard, any more than I do when someone acts like an idiot, for any reason. Very intelligent people can be idiots when their emotions are pressed. This is why creationists so hotly defend their convictions, in my idea, despite the fact that it makes them look like twits more times than none. I can say without a flinch that I don’t give a fart in a high wind whether evolution is true or not. Right now, it seems to work, and sometimes it doesn’t (or didn’t).

For creationists, even the most collected, the idea that they are not the product of a loving designer is unthinkable, and I call bullshit on anyone who says otherwise.

This means that appealing to my emotions won’t change my opinion about evolution because I don’t care to begin with whether it’s true or not anymore than I care about the validity of anything in physics or chemistry. I just want to know the truth. Appealing to my emotions is simply irrelevant. Creationists who dread a world without a super-father who looks after them need to relieve themselves from that fear before you can even begin to reason with them.

That’s the first thing one should do if he seeks to “deconvert” anyone, and I have absolutely no idea how to do that. Telling people about the scientific method doesn’t seem to work, and I think is a roundabout way of dealing with the creationist emotional baggage, at best (if it’s at all useful for it).


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