Thursday, July 06, 2006

Salient conditions

I spent a lot of time earlier on in this blog looking into causation and I want to briefly conclude the inquiry here. If, as I think is the case, any thing or event you can discern has potentially innumerable conditions and those conditions have their conditions and those conditions etc....then when you identify a 'cause' you are in fact selecting from a potentially unlimited number of related 'causes'. Clearly, not all conditions will usually be considered equally pertinent, and in any case it is neither practical nor desirable to include as something's cause the entire history and breadth of possible conditions. Generally speaking, it seems to be the case that some conditions will simply be more striking than others and will be the most likely to be described as a cause. Therefore, to avoid slipping into a deterministic or essentialist understanding, I prefer to think of causes as 'salient conditions'. The salience should be seen as dependent to some degree on the context of the inquiry and therefore different contexts may attend to other conditions.


alice said...

There is a growing chorus coming from the cognitive science crowd that says that we are seldom, if ever truly conscious of our motives. I am assuming here that motives could be considered at least a part of cause.

In "The Moral Animal" by Robert Wright, he says " not only is the feeling that we are consciously in control of our behaviour an illusion: it is a puposeful illusion, designed by natural selection to lend conviction to our claims."

Freud might not have been all wrong after all.

Paul Turner said...

Yes, I would say that motives are part of what I have called the value topography which comprises the relationships that define the ongoing experience of a self within an environment.

The observation made by the cognitive science crowd may support the Buddhist idea of a karmic process operating largely beyond the control and/or awareness of everyday consciousness. Part of Buddhist practice is geared towards just cultivating an expanded awareness of this process.

Psybertron said...

Hi Paul,

I'm catching up on some reading after a fairly sparse time recently ... I have to say I'm kinda disappointed at at your concluding piece on causation. "Salience" of existing conditions contingent on context and purpose sounds incredibly subjective - in a SOMist world anyway. I have no doubt that our (wesetrn) common sense inductive view of causation is illusory, but not that causation is entirely unreal, just poorly understood and explained.

I guess your "recognition of patterns in dependent arising" angle has switched to the kharmic thread ? I guess the word causation is dropped as simply bringing misleading baggage with it.

Causation is dead, long live Kharma, maybe.

Paul Turner said...

The use of the word "conditions" instead of "causes" is intended to leave behind the baggage of concepts such as "necessity" - which I think have become largely untenable - and to resist unilateral, reductionist causal explanations of phenomena.

The use of "salience" is intended to accept that not all determinable conditions are of equal value in terms of understanding and/or predicting a phenomenon within a given context.

With respect to being "incredibly subjective", remember, I'm not claiming that causation is either "real" or "illusory" as both claims imply an ontological stance which I'm not taking. I am claiming that the best way to avoid a reductionist understanding of causation is to consider the regularities and patterns we observe in the world as dependent on the context of our observations. For example, I see the scientific method just as a particular way of controlling the context of observation thus setting a criteria for salience.

With respect to karma, I think it may be a useful concept in that it admits of relational dependency in all phenomena without implying absolute necessity in any. At the inorganic level this relational dependency is such that it can be effectively modelled by probability but as we move up the levels the relationships become more free and diverse, yet still dependent.

Psybertron said...

Hi Paul,

The disappointment was mine, not yours :-) I agree with you.

I guess I was suggesting you needed to lead your readers through that transition - leaving causation behind as "untenable" in all its traditional senses - and why the "aontic" view showed more pragmatic real-life promise.

I still think you're on the right track.