Nerd For Tech
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Nerd For Tech

Is Everything Caused or Prevented by Everything Else?

As I argued in Nerd For Tech, every thing in a complex and chaotic interconnected system (for example life on earth) has a nonzero correlation with every other thing.

We should not be asking *whether* any two things are correlated but *what is* the correlation between the two things — including whether it is positive or negative.

I wonder whether how we talk about causation should also be changed in light of this. Consider an industrial accident. It has an infinite number of causes. Everything on earth, by its presence either increases or decreases, however slightly, the likelihood of the accident.

Nothing is certain to be caused or prevented by anything else, if only because of the random motion of molecules, and the quantum mechanical dice rolling that occurs all the time. Likewise nothing is certain to have no chance of causing something else.

Thus if there is a leak of a flammable gas and, when a light is turned on, an explosion, we can say that the spark inside the switch ignited the mixture of flammable gas and air, causing the explosion. But what caused the switch to get closed? If the worker had a better, or just different, sense of smell, he ot she might have thought better of it. So now the whole evolution of the human sense of smell is involved in the cause of the explosion.

If the worker had been wiser, he might have thought better of it. So now the whole evolution of the human brain and human wisdom is involved in the cause of the explosion.

But even a thing that has no obvious way being a cause is still a causative agent or a preventative agent. The fact that the factory wall is blue, say, rather than green will either cause (increase the chance of) or prevent (reduce the chance of) an explosion, by a nonzero amount, via an infinity of causal paths.

Seeing the wall will cause the brain of the worker to function differently ever after, affecting the sense of smell and the alertness and wisdom and every other aspect of the brain’s functioning. It will cause people to think differently about the factory and the company that owns it, and choose to work there or buy shares in it, at different probabilities.

The famous butterfly effect says that a single flap of a butterfly’s wings could cause a hurricane several days later in another part of the world. But there is another effect here that people ignore, and that is that preventing one flap of a butterfly’s wings *will* alter the likelihood of *everything* else subsequently happening on the planet. In other words, the flap acts as a causative or preventative factor for every other subsequent event, including whether at any subsequent instant any other butterfly on the planet flaps its wings.

Causation has a speed limit (the speed of light in a vacuum). Thus the additional butterfly flap will cause changes in the sun’s atmosphere only about ten minutes later, ten minutes being the time it takes for gravitational waves to travel at the speed of light to the sun. Note that the gravitational waves will reach the other side of the earth in about 0.03 seconds.

Correlation has no such speed limit. The motion of the sun’s atmosphere is correlated with the motion of the butterfly’s wings at the instant the two things are happening or not happening, because correlation doesn’t require causation.

“Causation is correlation limited by the speed of light.”, anyone?

Photo by Todd Turner on Unsplash



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Matthew Christopher Bartsh

Matthew Christopher Bartsh

I always follow back. I usually follow anyone who makes an interesting or okay response to one my articles. I often clap. I never give fewer than fifty claps.