Causation as Bias (sort of)

David Hume called causation the “cement of the universe”, and he was convinced that psychologically and in our practices, we can’t do without it.

Yet he was famously sceptical of any attempt to analyze causation in terms of necessary connections. For him, causation can only be defined in terms of a constant conjunction in space and time, and that is, I would add, no causation at all, but correlation. For every two events that seem causally connected can also, and without loss of the phenomenon, be described as just the first event, followed by the second. It’s really “just one damn thing after another”. It seems to me we still cannot, will not and need not make sense of the notion of causation (virtually no progress has been made since Hume's time).

There seems no need for another sort connection besides the spatio-temporal one, nor do we perceive any. In philosophy, a Hume world is a possible world defined in this way. All the phenomena are the same, but no necessary connections hold between the supposed relata. Maybe one should best imagine such a world as a game of life-world, but without a fundamental level governed by laws and forces; or as a movie, made of frames that are not intrinsically connected to each other. So, however strong the psychological forces that drive humans to accept further mysterious connections: Shouldn't we just stop worrying and accept living in a Hume world? Or are there actual arguments in favour of "real" causation?


Yes. There's the problem of order. What accounts for all the order in the world?It is remarkably ordered. If no special connections hold between events, why isn’t the world pure chaos? Or at least much more disordered? When two billard balls collide, never does one turn into an pink elephant.To explain this, men came up with laws of nature (self-sustained or enforced by a higher being).


So, there's the paradox: On the one hand, we have to postulate special connections to account for an orderly world like ours; on the other, we cannot give a proper account of these connections.

 

Inflationary cosmology to the rescue.

I won't go into the details (but see the nontechnical explanation and some further philosophical implications here).

Suffice it to say that

1) inflationary cosmology is mainstream physics, and

2) it postulates a spatially infinite universe in which every event with nonzero probability is realized infinitely many times.

 

How does this help to solve our paradox? The solution seems straightforward:

In an infinite universe of the right kind, order can locally emerge out of random events.  Our universe is of the right kind.

So, we can account for the order in our observed (local) part of the universe.

Random events just happen, one after another, there is no need for mysterious causal connections. We throw them out but keep the order.

Problem solved.

 
Q: But if this is true, it’s the end of the world. Thinking, action, science, biases and many, many more concepts are causal ones. How can we do without them?

A: life is hard, get over it.

Q: But the theory is untestable?!

A: Falsificationism is dead; we have other evidences in favour (see below).

Q: But isn’t the theory self-defeating?

A: It is certainly odd to have a theory informed by experiences and high-level physics that tells us that, strictly speaking, there are no experiences or sciences. But it doesn’t seem incoherent to me climb the ladder and then throw it away.

And, looking at the bright side:

In addition to being non-mysterious and conceptually sparse, this might allow to solve some additional (would-be?) hard problems:

qualia, clustering of tropes, time travel-paradoxes, indeterministic processes: All easy or trivial when a thouroughly indeterministic universe is considered.

 

So. What do you think – if you can?

88 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:57 PM
Select new highlight date

It seems to me we still cannot, will not and need not make sense of the notion of causation (virtually no progress has been made since Hume's time).

To which I can only say this post, this book and this Youtube video.

If the universe were a purely random foam, as this seems to imply, wouldn't we expect only the smallest possible zone of order? The fraction of observers not completely surrounded by the physical equivalent of TV snow is minuscule, and yet I, personally, see an entire roomful of coherent objects.

Even if you weight the prior probability of any given fundamental order of nature by its complexity, there are a lot of theories which have higher posterior ranking than pure noise for explaining my instantaneous experience.

What are the useful consequences of this theory?

It does not seem to me to “solve” the given “hard problems”; rather it declares them unsolvable, along with most everything else which we think we've solved.

This system does not pay rent, first of all. In fact, if anything, it's several years behind in its mortgage payments. If the universe is completely non-deterministic with infinite random events happening, shouldn't the odds of my living in the specific sub-universe that appears fully deterministic be almost indistinguishable from zero? This can't even cheat with the anthropic principle, since there should be a greater proportion (to the extent that proportions are intelligible in this context) of universes where the laws of causality do not appear to hold.

Perhaps most significantly, we don't know enough about how the universe works to say that it is in any sense possible for billiard balls to turn into pink elephants; we can't rule it out, but we can't say with any certainty that such a universe could actually exist.

Second of all, Hume's paradox (if I understand you correctly) is the fundamental problem of predicting the past from the future. If I did something a hundred times and the exact same thing happened, then I anticipate the same thing to happen on the hundred and first time. This does not appear logically necessary; the only reason we have to expect the future to conform to the past is because the future has always conformed to the past, which is circular. This is a sort of attack on the concept of evidence itself, and I haven't seen a good knock-down counterargument.

Indeed, we cannot be certain that the future will in fact conform to the laws of the past - our Simulation's causality algorithm gets corrupted, perhaps, or something else far "weirder" happens. As Hume says (paraphrasing), it's not like we can stop believing in causality, as the results aren't pretty, so even if we don't understand precisely why, we should probably go on believing that. It seems a bit presumptuous to say we will never understand causality, as other responders have indicated.

If the universe is completely non-deterministic with infinite random events happening, shouldn't the odds of my living in the specific sub-universe that appears fully deterministic be almost indistinguishable from zero?

As I said, I want to argue that the sizes of ordered and chaotic regions are of the same cardinality.

I'm not quite sure what it means that you "want to argue ... the same cardinality." Argue it or don't. As near as I can tell, you didn't, or at least you didn't argue how this prevents our universe from being overwhelmingly strong evidence against this theory.

Still, identical cardinality wouldn't get you out of this one. >0, , < infinity. This does not mean that if I pick a number at random out of the latter, I am just as likely to pick in the 0-1 range as I am to pick outside of it. Please correct me if this analogy is somehow inappropriate.

If I understand the gyst of the theory, saying that our universe is acausal is saying that any random causally unexplainable event could occur at any time. If this theory is true, I should expect with extraordinarily high probability to see at least one acausal event (and, for that matter, I should expect with high probability for the universe to spontaneously convert to "static," which would unmake me). Since an acausal event wouldn't necessarily destroy me, this theory can't even cheat by using the anthropic principle.

Events that are predicted with overwhelming probability never happening is about the most damning evidence against a theory that exists. Events that are predicted with unbelievably low probability happening not only often but invariably is also about the most damning evidence against a theory that exists.

The theory is admittedly undisprovable, so you can take some comfort in never being proven wrong, but you really, really shouldn't. Non-disprovability is generally a very undesirable attribute, at least if you care about finding the truth.

Ok, it seems that if you're right to choose density over cardinality then it's a blow to my proposal. I'm still trying to figure it out. Suppose the universe is an infinite Hume world. So is it true that even though there are just as many ordered regions, the likelihood that I live in one is almost zero?

That's irrelevant. The density of ordered points within the region of possibilities is what is relevant, and that density is almost zero.

That's what happens with decision-making under uncertainty: you aren't sure of something, yet you have to lawfully choose your actions. You don't choose your actions based on what you know is certain, you choose your actions depending on the specific state of uncertainty you're in. If you saw that X happened 100 times, you choose action P, and if you say Y happen 100 times, you choose action Q, even though your state of uncertainty permits the future to go identically in both cases, so that choosing different actions won't do any good. And maybe even the possibilities open for the future are exactly the same, but the fact that the past was different weights on the decisions just as well. That is what we are, cogs in the engine of possibilities, determining what happens even if we don't know what it is.

A theory that explains everything and predicts nothing? I award you -1 points.

Read this, then this, then this. You aren't ready yet.

Does inflationary cosmology give me a reason to think that the earth will not turn into a pink elephant the next second?

This is a very confusing post. Whatever you were trying to communicate, you didn't succeed.

Ugh. Agreed. I think this post is a reference to Loschmidt's paradox, i.e. that there should not be a "thermodynamic arrow of time" in an otherwise time-symmetric universe. It has been discussed before on OvercomingBias, but I can't find the link since it isn't mentioned by name.

In an infinite universe of the right kind, order can locally emerge out of random events. Our universe is of the right kind.

So, we can account for the order in our observed (local) part of the universe.

Here, Spluck seems to be using one of the common attempts to resolve it, which is that the universe is time-reversible, but we are in a region where entropy happens to only increase.

The (oft-cited) problem with this position is that local irregularity should not imply the further "irregularity" we see. That is, if the universe is truly random and time-symmetric, and you find a locally-time-asymmetric part, you should not expect to see this further asymmetry again and again. It's like believing that because you won the lottery, you're likely to win it again.

The confusion potency of this post is so high that it shouldn't be understood, unless a better argument is presented. The expectation of finding something fruitful in the writings like this is too low for the activity to be a good use of one's time. It's like studying philosophy.

The expectation of finding something fruitful in the writings like this is too low for the activity to be a good use of one's time. It's like studying philosophy.

lol! Or like finding the word processor in the molecular motions of a wall!

I am unsure why the parent had multiple downvotes. Vladmir's insight is one that I recommend.

It has been said that your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality. If you are equally good at explaining any outcome, you have zero knowledge. Likewise, while it can cause a few instrumental difficulties when dealing with the dark side, there significant epistemic benefit to cultivating incomprehension when encountering confused or illogical writings.

As with (I expect) most people here I have more than enough creativity wit and cached knowledge to generate deep (sounding) insights for just about any given source statement, absurd or otherwise. And when I am socialising I apply that skill liberally. But when I'm trying to actually enhance my understanding? It is far better not to train my brain to follow dead ends and misleading paths.

(And now I wonder to what extent I should consider my above elaboration ironic.)

It was downvoted for being rude to philosophers.

On the one hand, you're right, but on the other hand, reading philosophy is often more like trying to follow the plot of a really boring SF novel than like learning anything. On the gripping hand, this is probably because philosophy is hard and skill at philosophy isn't uniformly correlated with skill at writing.

I guess I'm saying I can see both sides or something.

this is probably because philosophy is hard and skill at philosophy isn't uniformly correlated with skill at writing.

I would have said it is because philosophy as commonly practised is a relatively simple skill that serves primarily as a carrier signal for social politics and only incidentally to generate insight into the nature of things. (Having exposed myself to altogether too much of the Australian Association of Philosophy conference in the last week may well have contributed to this cynicism.)

You're right - another problem is that the barriers to entry are poorly correlated with expertise. (In contrast to health care, where a would-be good doctor may burn out in med school but a student who doesn't is likely to be competent.)

I have yet to see any criticism of philosophy at large (as opposed to some given sub-discipline, or particular theorist, or specific individual philosophy convention) that doesn't just look like complaining about academic disciplines you don't like (or possibly complaining about academic disciplines you are bad at).

My chief complaint about the academic discipline that I don't like is the overwhelming frustration of seeing an activity that I love to engage in and in which I excel dominated by woo. Philosophy just isn't the rational enquiry into the nature of things that I want it to be.

I find it difficult to imagine a combination of words that I could present that isn't vulnerable to the above accusation.

Since we're discussing it: here's Eliezer's rant on philosophy and how it's bad at reductionism.

Sure, that's fair. I honestly like philosophy - it's just sometimes much too tiring for me.

(Or, to be more precise, I like the work of expert philosophers. Philosophical questions do attract a lot of well-meaning ignoramuses, especially online.)

I don't think so. If I had so poor an opinion of philosophy, I wouldn't be trying to get my PhD in the subject.

A PhD-level philosopher knows where to look, and so expected value of the answer they can find is high enough, as opposed to the situation for a random educated person. This is very unlike the situation in other sciences, where even few weeks' study can give you a lot of genuine insight in how things work, likely answering your questions if the answers are known and not awfully deep. With philosophy, you are going to be led in circles for years, emerging more confused than at the start, with a few simple answers and likely a serious memetic illness.

The good answers in philosophy are easy enough to find. We just offload them onto other disciplines for easy reference. For instance, once we'd gotten a good handle on natural philosophy, we started putting bits of it into new disciplines like 'physics'.

Complaining about not finding easy answers in academic philosophy is like complaining that your R&D department hasn't manufactured anything this week.

You suggested that 'studying philosophy' was not a "good use of one's time". Given how much we've already gone around the whole 'philosophy is useless' meme, I'd expect such a comment to just get downvotes from the at least a dozen or so philosophers kicking around these parts.

When was the last time another discipline was spun out of philosophy?
psychology, a century ago?

I can't make heads or tails of your first couple sentences. As for the last, what's your evidence for that claim and what is a "memetic illness"?

"What is Wrong with Our Thoughts?" describes the problem with memetic illness: you start believing some of the nonsense invented by philosophers. This is not to say that all philosophers invent nonsense, but some excel at it.

Expected value of seeking an answer in a given pool of info is the estimation of how good the answer you're going to get, given what you know before actually looking. If you are asking a person on the street a question about quantum mechanics, you don't expect a good answer, even though there is still a chance that the person will turn out to be a physicist. The answer to the same question asked at a physics conference will have higher expected value, even though you are not guaranteed to chance upon a knowledgeable person. Likewise when the person you are asking a question is yourself, with a library to study.

For those who are arguing that a theory of non-causation needn't be considered because it is not predictive, I do not think this is the correct refutation. As spuckblase pointed out in a comment, using the predictive ability to judge the merit of a theory presupposes a causal reality. Fortunately, causal reality is hardly ever challenged.

So what really challenges Hume theory?

In the context of belief in external reality (in the context of considering the intersection of a Hume theory and empiricism), the correct refutation of Hume theory is that while it might be logically conceivable that all the order we see is only chance (like the possibility of flipping heads an infinite number of times), the probability is zero. (ref: Psychohistorian and others.)

However, the general refutation would occur earlier:

Shouldn't we just stop worrying and accept living in a Hume world? Or are there actual arguments in favour of "real" causation?

Yes. There's the problem of order.

What order? If there is no causation, then my observations and perceptions are not causally related to reality. According to Hume non-causation, neurons form spontaneously and memories would not be causally related to the past. However, even my belief in the existence of neurons is not causally related to the actual existence of neurons. I have no reason to believe in the experience of anything other than the thoughts of an instantaneous moment in time.

This theory is indistinguishable from solipsism.

Which I believe is refuted only on the basis of being boring after a while?

Now we're getting to the heart of it. Upvoted. What does it mean to live in a hume world? For example, we would have to accept the existence of non-reducible mental states (everybody here granted the consistency of the theory until now) and take everything on faith. But indeed we cannnot take anything on faith, since we cannot think, if thinking is a causal notion!?

Suppose for the sake of argument we're not living in a hume world, but had massive, perhaps infinite computing power. we could simulate so many hume worlds that there are some with order and inhabitants in them. They would then quasi-think, quasi-feel and make quasi-experiences. Everything happens as if there were necessitating laws governing it, but there aren't. But still, the universe quasi-looks ordered to them.

This theory and solipsism have something in common, but they are distinguishible. solipsism surely is consistent but higly implausible compared to the standard model. But there could be evidence for it. But it is of another sort than the evidence for a hume world. If pigs start to fly, only hume world-theory (HWT from now on) can explain this easily.

Another point not enough discussed so far are evidences for HWT: causal gaps and anomalies in the fabric of the world as we already know it: In a Causal world, how do we properly deal with mental causation, qualia, time travel paradoxes and in general, indeterministic processes? I'm not saying there are no other solutions, but a lot of people think we did not and possibly cannot make progress in these questions, at least in the current framework. But HWT delivers here.

Firstly, this kind of multiverse is esentially the same as a parallel worlds one; the only difference is which dimension you take the multiplicity to occur in. I prefer parallel worlds as it implies a logical branching structure, a cladistic tree which provides an overlying system to the otherwise arbitrary worlds.

Second, without some kind of anthropic principle or similar filtering mechanism, then islands of order only appear at the very tip of a mountain, surrounded by masses of increasing disorder. Any order that has been apparent so far has no reason not to disappear in a fizz of entropy in the next moment.

My main feeling on this is that the very makeup of our brains and consciousness requires a universe that works in a certain way. We impose things like time and who knows how may other basic laws onto the world just because they are written into our souls.

Firstly, this kind of multiverse is esentially the same as a parallel worlds one; the only difference is which dimension you take the multiplicity to occur in. I prefer parallel worlds as it implies a logical branching structure, a cladistic tree which provides an overlying system to the otherwise arbitrary worlds.

Er, I suppose there is a weak sense in which you can "prefer" many worlds to inflation but they're basically unrelated theories. Its not like we're choosing between them. Both could well be true. Modal realism could be true too... thats when it gets crazy.

So now I scanned over the "Dust theory FAQ" to which Z_M_Davis linked (thanks again!)

To

Q5: How seriously do you take the Dust Theory yourself?

Egan replies:

A5: Not very seriously, although I have yet to hear a convincing refutation of it on purely logical grounds. For example, some people have suggested that a sequence of states could only experience consciousness if there was a genuine causal relationship between them. The whole point of the Dust Theory, though, is that there is nothing more to causality than the correlations between states. However, I think the universe we live in provides strong empirical evidence against the “pure” Dust Theory, because it is far too orderly and obeys far simpler and more homogeneous physical laws than it would need to, merely in order to contain observers with an enduring sense of their own existence. If every arrangement of the dust that contained such observers was realised, then there would be billions of times more arrangements in which the observers were surrounded by chaotic events, than arrangements in which there were uniform physical laws.

So, I would just add that the Dust theory of Egan (not without its followers on this side, it seems) can be supplemented by in an infinite universe of the right kind-approach ...and voilà: we have pretty much what I say.

So why the hate?

Bayes' law time!

Suppose the event T is the fact that the universe has no causality, and the event O is that the universe is as orderly as we have observed it to be. Then P(T|O) = P(T)*P(O|T)/P(O). (In general, these probabilities explicitly do not take into account what we actually know about T and O.) I'll let you pick P(T) and P(O). You can even pick P(T) = 0.99 and P(O) = 0.01. P(O|T), however, is so small that P(T|O), which may be orders of magnitude larger, is still negligibly small.

And a procatalepsis: if P(O|T) is not small--perhaps because orderly areas are more prominent than chaotic areas--then tell us how probability is determined, such that this orderly area is so likely. If you can't do that, then you know less than just about anybody.

Any statement which leads to the conclusion that all statements are false, or that all statements are unknowable, is itself false. Treating this as a basic premise cuts off a lot of bad lines of thought, including this one, early.

Where do I say or imply that? did you read it at all?

Downvoted again. Phew. Maybe you just tell me where I said or implied it?

No, you're right - you didn't say that. Your theory maintains that all prediction is impossible, but it doesn't maintain that all statements are false or unknowable.

Falsificationism is dead

Well I'm merely an amateur when it comes to philosophy of science, but I seem to encounter more Popperians of one sort or another than not.

Without some sort of causality, there's no way to make predictions. As was recently pointed out, causality does not imply correlation; the theory that RichardKennaway's device operates causally predicts almost perfectly its behavior. Do you have a better method?

Okay, now we're talking.

That isn't parsimony, that's ontological promiscuity of the worst sort.

alicorn&robinZ: i talked about ontological parsimony. you're talking about something else. epistemological parsimony, perhaps? same for mystery. that you can prolong it doesn't mean there's less of it.

cyan: yes, this might be a problem. you sure natural desity is the right measure?

z_m_davies: looks very interesting. thanks!

jack: yes, I saw that problem too. That's why I said the theory might be self-defeating. My idea was that even if inflation as a theory is strictly speaking forbidden, it can phenomenologically point in the right direction. I mean, we might be still able to say something like: the "quasi"-observation" or the "quasi"-theory is true.

Why are you replying to us in top-level batches? Are you trying to limit how many total comments you make as a form of karma damage control, or just determined to make the threads disparate and hard to follow?

Anyway:

i talked about ontological parsimony. you're talking about something else. epistemological parsimony, perhaps?

Do you mean you think you're proposing fewer basic kinds of entities (i.e. you think objects exist, and we think objects and causes exist)? That seems to me very suspiciously like a feature of how things are worded - you could just as easily say that we're proposing quarks and space and time, and you're proposing quarks with different properties (e.g. the property of appearing, disappearing, and moving at random instead of the property of interacting with other quarks causally) and also space and time.

same for mystery. that you can prolong it doesn't mean there's less of it.

Most of those mysteries boil down to a fairly small number of things we do not yet know. Yours, granted, boils down to just one thing you don't know: why the hell do all these random things happen? But it is a very BIG and very CONSPICUOUS mystery, and there is no good way to get rid of it or push it farther away or shrink it. This is not true of our small host of mysteries, which we regularly shrink and push and can even hope to eventually do away with.

Why don't you apply the principle of charity for once?

Anyway, compare:

  1. The universe was created in the big bang.
  2. God created the big bang.

So in 2. I now have prolonged the mystery. Is it less mysterious?

I employ the principle of charity when someone's writing is unclear and they could be saying any of several things, some of which would make sense and some of which wouldn't. Then the principle of charity suggests that I interpret the unclarity as the possibility that makes sense. Are you saying that I misunderstand you, or do you just want to throw up "charity" as a defense force field for when people who do not agree with you express that disagreement?

As for your comparison: The move to God is unmotivated, unlike the mystery-postponing moves we make based on evidence and logical inference. Also, God is one big, conspicuous, intractable mystery, not lots of little ones, which is exactly what I complained about in your theory of causation. So it is a comparison that is extremely unfavorable to what you seem to be defending.

From your first comment to my post on you were really agressive. Arguments are fine, but why always the personal attacks? I tell you what might be going on here: You saw the post, couldn't make sense of it after a quick glance and decided it was junk and an easy way to gain reputation and boost your ego by bashing. And you are not alone. There are lots of haters, and nobody who just said, Ok, I don't believe it, but let's discuss it, and stop hitting the guy over the head.

The theory is highly counterintuitive, I said as much, but it is worth at least a few minutes of discussion, and i discussed it with quite a few eminent philosophers already. None was convinced (which is hardly surprising), but they found the discussion interesting and the theory consistent. So something has gone wrong here. Maybe all this talk of "winning" and "bayesian conspiracy" and whatever really does not do a favor to the principle goal of the site of being as unbiased as possible.

Spuckblase, two things.

First, none of us are being as rude to you as you are to us in this comment alone. If you can't stand the abuse you're getting here, then quit commenting on this post.

Second, we've given this well more than a few minutes' discussion, and you've given us no reason to believe that we misunderstand your theory - you just object to our categorical dismissal of it. I am perfectly willing to believe that the philosophers you discussed this with gave you credit for making an interesting argument - philosophers are generous like that - and for all its faults, your theory is consistent. But around here, interesting is a matter of writing style, and consistent is a sub-minimal requirement: we demand useful. None of us are rationalists just for the lulz - if a theory doesn't help us get what we actually want, it really is of no use to us. And by that standard, any skeptical hypothesis is a waste of time, including your proposed Humeiform worldview, when other hypotheses actually work.

Edit circa 2014: the Slacktivist blog moved (mostly) to a new website - this is the new link to the "sub-minimal requirement" post.

First, none of us are being as rude to you as you are to us in this comment alone. If you can't stand the abuse you're getting here, then quit commenting on this post.

Oh, I can take the abuse, I'm just wondering.

Second, we've given this well more than a few minutes' discussion, and you've given us no reason to believe that we misunderstand your theory

At least at first, I've been given just accusations and incredulous stares.

if a theory doesn't help us get what we actually want, it really is of no use to us

If you want the truth, you have to consider being wrong even about your darlings, say, prediction.

Do you actually believe this theory that you have proposed? Because we aren't arguing that it's logically impossible, we're explaining why we don't believe it.

Your theory says you can't cause our beliefs to change and you shouldn't be surprised about it. It also implies that you defend it by accident, not because it's true.

The good news is that you have an obvious upgrade right ahead. Not all of us are so lucky.

Why does everybody assume I'm a die-hard believer in this theory?

No such assumption required. For example, if you have 10% credence in your theory, the same 10% says you're defending it by accident. Viewed another way, we have no reason to listen to you if your theory is false and no reason to listen if it's true either. Please apply this logic to your beliefs and update.

Seems to me you're conflating different concepts: "being the reason for" and "being the cause of":

compare what an enemy of determinism could say: "we have no reason to listen to you if your theory is false and no reason to listen if it's true either". Now what?

Let's drop abstract truth-seeking for a moment and talk about instrumental values instead.

Believing in causality is useful in a causal world and neutral in an acausal one. Disbelieving in causality is harmful in a causal world and likewise neutral in an acausal one. So, if you assign nonzero credence to the existence of causality (as you implied in a comment above: "why does everybody assume I'm a die-hard believer?"), you'd do better by increasing this credence to 100%, because doing so has positive utility in the causal world (to which you have assigned nonzero credence) and doesn't matter in the acausal one.

Well, if you stipulate that "abstract truth-seeking" has nothing whatsoever to do with my getting along in the world, then you're right I guess.

I would say, "increasing this credence toward 100%" - without mathematical proof that the familiar sort of causation is the only such scheme that is feasible, absolute certainty is (slightly) risky. (Even with such proof, it is risky - proofs aren't perfect guarantees.)

Side point: if you click on the "Reply" link below a specific comment, your reply will be threaded with that comment and the person you address will be notified of your response - I recommend it.

As for your actual points: I don't care about ontoepistemoparsiwhatever. I care about being right. And your proposal - I guess we're calling it the Humeiform theory - isn't supported by any conceivable block of evidence, including that which actually holds true. If there weren't any other theories supported by the evidence of the universe, it might win by default, being simplest, but this universe is regular enough to be accurately fitted by many not-overly-complicated theories.

If I want my beliefs to correspond to reality, I'm better off favoring simple theories over complex ceteris paribus - this is Occam's insight. But I'm also better off favoring accuracy over vacuity. And when I shut up and multiply, the latter dominates the former for this special case.

I guess we're calling it the Humeiform theory - isn't supported by any conceivable block of evidence, including that which actually holds true

just untrue. IF pigs start to fly, etc., you'll better remember this theory. besides, I repeat that in my opinion, the (controverted, granted,, but this is definitely not a closed case) existence of qualia, mental causation and indeterministic processes already give support.

If pigs start to fly, that doesn't support the Humeiform theory - it just undermines (some of) its competitors. Being as the Humeiform theory predicts absolutely nothing, it can't possibly be a better predictor than any theory which predicts anything at all correctly. The only way it can win is if no theory can do so - in which case it, being the simplest, wins by default.

No. We talked about evidential support, not predictive power. Inhabitants of a Hume world are obviously right to explain flying pigs et al. by a hume-world-theory, even if they cannot predict anything.

Err, wrong.

  1. Evidential support is directly tied to predictive power. That's what it means to be supported by the evidence - that it predicted the evidence over the alternatives.

  2. Explanations are directly tied to predictive power. That's what it means to explain things - that those things are predicted to occur instead of the alternatives.

This is really, really basic stuff - dating back at least to Karl Popper's falsifiability, if not further. If you don't know it, you have a long way to go before you can reasonably consider trying to calculate the fundamental nature of the universe.

I know arguing against this fellow is like minting karma, but is it really getting anywhere?

I'm not giving up yet - I'm fairly sure spuckblase is smart, he just doesn't have a good background in the philosophy of science, much less Bayes' Theorem. In any case, if I'm being perfectly frank, karma is not my motive.

In all unseriousness, you're new to the community and have already linked to tvtropes, XKCD, and EY's old posts. If you're not out for karma, I don't know what you're playing at.

Nah, he was around on OB. His post on the welcome thread explains all (well, not all, but it's consistent with his posting history and claimed motivation).

What Cyan said (look for comments under the name "Robin_Z" - those are me, probably). Also, I've been an Internet dork since before TV Tropes existed - I've got at least three ranks in "Computer Use: Internet Forumite", a high-speed Internet connection over a wireless network both at school and at home, and a buttload of bookmarks primed to throw at almost any situation.

(Also, I'm in that early stage of Internet site usage where I obsessively follow every new comment and blog post to the community, which explains the high comment rate.)

Thanks but no thanks. I do know this really really basic stuff - I just don't agree. Instead of just postulating that all explanations have to be tied to prediction, why don't you try to rebut the argument. Again: Inhabitants of a Hume world are right to explain their world with this Hume-world theory. They just happen to live in a world where no prediction is possible. So explanation should be conceived independently of prediction. Not every explanation needs to be tied to prediction.

Inhabitants of a Hume world are right to explain their world with this Hume-world theory. They just happen to live in a world where no prediction is possible.

Just because what you believe happens to be true, doesn't mean you're right to believe it. If I walk up to a roulette wheel, certain that the ball will land on black, and it does--then I still wasn't right to believe it would.

Hypothetical Hume-worlders, like us, do not have the luxury of access to reality's "source code": they have not been informed that they exist in a hypothetical Hume-world, any more than we can know the "true nature" of our world. Their Hume-world theory, like yours, cannot be based on reading reality's source code; the only way to justify Hume-world theory is by demonstrating that it makes accurate predictions.

Arguably, it does make at least one prediction: that any causal model of reality will eventually break down. This prediction, to put it mildly, does not hold up well to our investigation of our universe.

Alternatively, you could assert that if all possibilities are randomly realized, we might (with infinitesimal probability) be living in a world that just happened to exactly resemble a causal world. But without evidence to support such a belief, you would not be right to believe it, even if it turns out to be true. Not to mention that, as others have mentioned in this thread, unfalsifiable theories are a waste of valuable mental real estate.

jack: yes, I saw that problem too. That's why I said the theory might be self-defeating. My idea was that even if inflation as a theory is strictly speaking forbidden, it can phenomenologically point in the right direction. I mean, we might be still able to say something like: the "quasi"-observation" or the "quasi"-theory is true.

But what I said isn't the same as saying the theory is self-defeating. The theory is just based on a false premise (that inflation allows for regions of finite space that violate our recorded laws of physics). Inflation says: "Any given of configuration of a region of finite space that does not violate the laws of physics exists infinitely many times." You say: "There are some reasons of finite space where the laws of physics are violated!"

This does not follow!!!

And as I said before, the size of the ordered region, and the amount of order in our region is too great to be justified by the anthropic principle.

alicorn&robinZ: i talked about ontological parsimony.

In the sense of subtracting an angel (causality) from the head of a pin (our surfboard)? :)

The natural density is for natural numbers. The point is that cardinality is probably not the right thing to look at -- there are more representative notions of the size of a subset (even in the natural numbers).

Guys,

my goodness, do you have some fields medals to show for your confidence? and would you also downvote hume into the ground? You discussed the riddle of induction, no?

as for the few substantial points:

alicorn:

the model is ontologically more parsimonous because it posits all standard entities minus causal relations.

I'd think we find ourselves in a seemingly ordered universe (or a patch) thereof because the cardinality of ordered regions is the same as that of the chaotic ones in this sort of infinite universe.

and i really don't see why random events are more mysterious than deterministic ones. care to explain?

The theory is practically useless

Even if this were so, is it an argument against its truth?

the model is ontologically more parsimonous [sic] because it posits all standard entities minus causal relations.

That isn't parsimony, that's ontological promiscuity of the worst sort.

Say we have two universes. One of them looks like what you describe: infinity sub-universes going about their random business in space. The other has no further division into sub-universes, and it has tight, deterministic causality.

You can find out anything you might care to learn about universe 2 by fully describing one instant and a list of the laws of nature. Then, you can (without any further premises) extrapolate forwards and backwards in time indefinitely and get the right answer every time, at least if you are a superintelligence.

In order to know as much about the first universe, though, you can't do that. The instant you pick to describe is more complicated than the one of the second universe to begin with, but let's ignore that - if we ignore that, then at first it looks like universe 1 wins, because you just describe the instant and no rules. But what if you want to know what happens at instant+1? You can't extrapolate: you have to do more positing. In fact, you have to individually posit every object, event, and area of empty space in universe 2, because they don't follow from anything and have to stand alone, random pillars of acausality in a vast sea of acausality.

The list of things you need to know about universe 1 in order to be able to derive everything there is to know about universe 1 just is the list of everything there is to know about universe 1. The list of things you need to know about universe 2 in order to be able to derive everything there is to know about universe 2 is much more parsimonious. Universe 1, says, "here is a WHOLE LOT OF STUFF." Universe 2 says, "here is some stuff, and the mechanisms by which it will change."

As for mystery: you must have an atypical understanding of the word. Mystery is what happens when something cannot be explained. There is no explanation for why everything might happen at random: there is only one step between the question and the mystery. ("Why is this stick of gum yellow?" "It is yellow at random." "Why is the color of the gum random?" "It is a mystery.") A causal model of the universe does not eliminate mystery, but it postpones it and makes it less conspicuous. ("Why is this stick of gum yellow?" "It is yellow because it refracts light at a wavelength that the human eye sends to the brain, which interprets it as a color which is called yellow in English because the word is derived from Old English geolu." Then you can follow the chain backwards pretty damn far in any number of directions: why does the substance reflect that wavelength? Why did light fall on the stick of gum? Why does the human organism interpret that wavelength as a color and not a temperature or a sound? Why is yellow its own color in English and not in some other languages? What's the etymology of geolu? The mystery takes a long time to turn up. There is less of it.)

the cardinality of ordered regions is the same as that of the chaotic ones in this sort of infinite universe

Accepting this statement for the moment, I should point out that cardinality is probably not the best measure of the size of the sets for this purpose. For a simpler case, the natural numbers, see natural density.

The model is less complex, possibly, but this is not the sole criterion on which it should be judged. Occam's Razor discourages complexity, but it encourages precision, and a Humeiform universe avoids the first only at the cost of utterly failing the second.

To use a metaphor: you have to pay for everything you put in your model, but your return on that investment is related to how much accuracy the model gives. More expensive (complex) models can still win if they give a bigger enough payoff (sufficiently complete prediction of the observations).

Everybody,

I'll admit defeat if you give me a good explanation of causation. Until then, the argument, more or less, stands, and is just this:

There is no good explanation of causation. We should consider to get rid of it, since we can explain all phenomena otherwise (random events in an infinte universe as spoken of by inflationary cosmology)

the new theory is less mysterious and more parsimonous. It might help explain other puzzles that are tied to causation like mental causation and time travel paradoxes.

the fact that it predicts nothing can be seen as a downside, but should not disqualify it, since the theory can explain that very fact.

Of course this is highly counterintuitive. But here, of all places, it should be given at least serioius discussion.

Okay... I wasn't going to downvote the post because this is the sort of thing I thought was marvelously clever when I was thirteen (so there's hope) and you'd already been downvoted below posting threshold (so it'd be just punitive), but really?

You have provided a way the universe could be (the word my undergrad prof used for a universe with no causation was "Humeiform", as opposed to "uniform"): there could be a lot of sub-universes arranged spatially in a single possible world, in which infinitely many universes instantiate every possible sequence of events.

You don't have any way to explain why we should find ourselves in a sub-universe that seems to fall into miraculously well-regulated patterns, when the overwhelming likelihood if you pick a sub-universe at random is that wacky, irregular stuff will happen all the time. The anthropic principle won't help you, because there's no reason in this system for the observers to mostly find themselves in sub-universes with apparent regularity.

Less mysterious? "There is no reason anything should be as it is; it just is, at random" doesn't eliminate the mystery or even push it back another level or two - it wallows in mystery, it rests its head on a pillow of mystery at night, it has a middle-management job at the mystery factory, and it watches the mystery channel on TV every day. It's just so saturated in mystery that, having never found this much mystery in one place before, you have chosen to ignore it.

More parsimonious? Perhaps you can say "it's all random" in fewer words than you can recite a basic physics textbook, but three words that have no evidence backing them, no way to obtain such evidence, and no connection with the world in which we find ourselves have a much lower usefulness density than any verbose, overexplained thing you care to pick out from science. Parsimony is about getting your theory as small as you can without losing information. Your theory, since it contains no information, could be expressed by chirping like a cricket.

The fact that it predicts nothing makes it practically useless and uninteresting. If you think it's fun, it's no skin off my nose if you believe it, but believing things because they are fun and not because they inform your behavior in an instrumentally useful way or because you have evidence for them is not what we as a community are getting at, so it should not come as a surprise to you that (given the causal regularities of this website) you were poorly received.

This comment reminds me of nothing so much as a philosophical Zero Punctuation review. In other words, you win the thread. I recommend you imagine hearing this quote in a Yahtzee voice:

"There is no reason anything should be as it is; it just is, at random" doesn't eliminate the mystery or even push it back another level or two - it wallows in mystery, it rests its head on a pillow of mystery at night, it has a middle-management job at the mystery factory, and it watches the mystery channel on TV every day.

Hey, we're giving your ideas serious discussion.

By your standards, we don't have a "good explanation" for gravity, electricity, formal logic or indeed anything at all. However deep we go, you can always point your finger and say nyah nyah, you haven't "explained" this base level! But your request would be hard to satisfy: pray tell, what conclusion could possibly follow from no premises at all? What concept is so obvious that it could be explained to an "ideal philosophy student of perfect emptiness"? None! So you're forcing us into bottomless recursive descent instead of, you know, building more precise models and actually predicting stuff.

The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work. - John Von Neumann

If you want a mathematical model of causality, read the links to Judea Pearl. But if you want a "philosophical explanation", sorry, I can't help you here and I doubt that anyone can.

It isn't counterintuitive at all. I just think you have the physics/implications wrong. I think it probably does predict something. The anthropological effect only justifies sensing order to the extent that order was necessary for our existence. So if the only environment that mattered for the purposes of our existence was the planet Earth then we should only expect to find order on Earth. If you're right, as we gather information about more and more remote locations we should see less and less constant conjunction. For example, I don't think the neighboring galaxies perfectly obeying the laws of gravity is necessary for our continued existence-- so that order cannot be explained away with an appeal to the anthropic principle.

More importantly though, inflation does not predict that in an infinite universe there will be a finite region that contains every modally possible configuration. The possible configurations are constrained by the laws of physics. Indeed, you can't predict inflation unless you assume some (all?) of those laws are working throughout the universe. I think accepting inflation requires you to accept some universal laws of physics. As such, your theory is implicitly denied by inflation.

the fact that it predicts nothing can be seen as a downside, but should not disqualify it, since the theory can explain that very fact.

If that doesn't disqualify it, then I propose the following "Divergent Theory", defined as follows:

  • Everything is Divergent Theory.
  • Divergent Theory predicts Divergent Theory, thus Divergent Theory predicts everything.

The fact that Divergent Theory predicts everything means it predicts nothing. This can be seen as a downside, but should not disqualify it, since the theory can explain that very fact.