IF/THEN conditionals and other nonlinear interactions

Do you really believe in cause and effect?

There is this concept called causality which is defined as the relation between one process (the cause) and another (the effect). In causation, causes always occur in the past; effects always lie in the future, where it can in turn be a cause of many other effects, which all lie in its future, while it lies in their past.

4causesAristotle realized that there are many ways to look at causes.

What he called the efficent cause is what most think of as cause.  Efficient or moving cause consists of something apart from the effect which makes the effect happen and without which it cannot happen. For example, the efficient cause of a table is a carpenter; according to Aristotle the efficient cause of a boy is a father.  The efficient cause is what did that. If a ball broke a window, then the ball is the efficient cause of the window breaking. Every change, from this perspective, is caused by an efficient cause. If your eye sees, then it sees because light from the object strikes your eyes and causes you to see what is there. Efficient causes answer the “what did that” question, but do not answer how it was done.  Did the ball break the window?  Yes, but the boy  who threw the ball is also a cause.  The rods and cones in your eyes cause you to see.  So what causes the rods and cones?  Isn’t that the real cause of you being able to see?

Here’s how Aristotle looked at those other types of causes.  Open your mind a bit and you will see there are many other ways to look at what “causes” something.

  • Material cause is what something is made out of. The human body of made up of cells. Wooden boxes are made up of wood. Computers are made out of transistors and other electronic components. The material cause also explains the general sort of properties of something. Wooden boxes burn because they are made out of wood. The human body needs oxygen because its cells need oxygen.
  • Formal cause is what makes a thing one thing rather than many things. The human body is human, wooden boxes are boxes, and computers are computers. The difference between a mere collection of cells and a human body is that a human body has properties and functions that come from a particular arrangement of the right kind of cells doing the right kind of things. A mere collection of cells is not the formal cause. A human body is the formal cause. One type of formal cause is the exemplary cause. An exemplary cause is the plan in someone’s mind that gave rise to a computer.
  • The final cause is why efficient causes do what they do and why formal causes do what they do. Why do balls break windows? The final cause says that because balls are hard and windows are brittle, they break. Why do rocks fall? Aristotle said that rocks fall because they are heavy. Air is light, therefore air rises. These are all pointing out the final cause of efficient causes. To ask for the final cause of formal causes is to ask why these things exist at all. Why do human beings exist? Aristotle says that they exist to make more human beings, because they are alive. Why do computers exist? They exist because people made them. They wanted to use them as tools in math, gaming and business. Why do rocks exist? They exist because the wind, sea and rain break rock formations to produce rocks.

But let’s not get too distracted by philosophy.  It’s tempting to live in the abstract, but not satisfying.  Besides, Aristotle was wrong.

Simple cause-and-effect relationships require an external cause to get an effect.  This works quite well for mechanical systems.  But in ecosystems, nearly all the factors which influence each other are inside the system.  Appealing to an external force for an explanation is not an explanation at all.  It’s just a way of escaping understanding.  It’s labeling the system as a black box and studying it without ever getting inside it.

Mechanistic approaches led folks to try to correlate changes in the sun’s radiation with diverse events on earth.  Or explain behavior with the zodiac.  Or with gods intervening.

All are dead ends.

All living systems are made up of complex adaptive systems which are composed of complex adaptive systems always adapting to and evolving with other systems with which they interact.

So trying to tease out cause and effect is just a sometimes-pleasant distraction from our goal: understanding resilience of living systems.

One basic problem in understanding any supposed causality in resilience of living systems is that effect always comes at some delay after a cause and lots of things happen during that delay.

Shigui Ruan made this clear in his 2001 Quarterly of Applied Mathematics paper: “The dynamics of delayed systems depend not only on the parameters describing the models but also on the time delay from the feedback.  A delay system is absolutely stable if it is asymptotically stable for all values of the delays and conditionally stable if it is asymptotically stable for the delays in some intervals.  In the latter case, the system could become unstable when the delays take some critical values and bifurcations may occur.”  Then he goes on for pages of equations without coming to any conclusion–except you have to make a lot of unrealistic assumptions to model any living system, since  critical values which induce bifurcations are ubiquitous.

Don’t make Ruan’s mistake and look for cause in mathematics.  Read our essay on quantophrenia (https://meadowcreekvalley.wordpress.com/2015/11/07/quantophrenia/) and see if you don’t agree.

IF/THEN conditional statements may appear to endorse belief in cause and effect.  But they don’t.  All they say is that if certain conditions occur, then do this action.  All they endorse is followining rules of thumb.  Rules of thumb are what engineering is all about.  Mathematics may help you get close to an answer.  But engineering is not about figuring out cause.  It is about making things work.  That is, meeting the requirements of a customer.

And engineers do a fine job of that.  The problem comes when trying to understand living systems where innumerable systems are adapting to each other and each is composed of almost innumerable systems adapting to each other.

When you go down this path you may be tempted to say:  “Forget cause, it is a dead end.  You’ll never find it because all phenomena have multiple causes and you’ll never uncover them all.  So just accept reality and go on.”  And maybe you can deaden your brain with drugs or religion or philosophy and fool yourself into thinking you can live that way.

But you can’t.  You’ll always be looking for cause, its just the way you are.  Maybe that will lead you someday to appreciate the interplay of living systems as far beyond any simple cause and effect.

So keep trying to find the causes of resilience.  Just because it is fun.


Download Ruan’s paper at: http://www.math.miami.edu/~ruan/MyPapers/Ruan-QAM2001.pdf

And look at a little dated (no mention of complex adaptive systems) but cogent book on coevolution of ideas and systems:  Richard Norgaard, Development Betrayed: The End of Progress and a CoevolutionaryRevisioning of the Future. London: Routledge, 1994.






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