Forget Causality; Embrace the Dark Side of Context

There are three ways that people’s social behavior is usually ‘understood’ and taught:

  • find the causes of any social behavior (the topic here)
  • find the laws of social behavior
  • define categories to divide social behavior into discrete ‘chunks’ that look scientific

The main problem with ’cause’ is that it is a verbal or social construction trying to describe only one or two parts of what is there to be observed in the real world.

As for any use of language, it is about affecting people and not about directly doing anything to the world.

Therefore, what will be acceptable as ’causes’ will depend not on the world we observe but on:

  • what is socially desirable
  • what is socially acceptable (at the time at least)
  • what makes the best stories which will be acceptable
  • what can most easily be weaved into past stories or into fascinating new stories to make them acceptable
  • what is easy to say and describe for people
  • what is easily understood
  • what is easy to abstract from observations to convince people you have found the ’cause’

Other points:

  • while we might say that X causes the social behavior, there are always other things going on as well, and so why is that one ‘cause’ the only thing singled out?  (it depends on social factors like those above)
  • there are always contexts in place when anything happens which do not stand out but which are needed for the event to occur
  • whatever happens also affects the contexts that were in place so we do not actually have a constant background of context and obvious ’causes’ in any case (like we forget that any consequences change the previous context that produced those consequences)
  • ’causes’ only seem to be simple because the diversity and nuances have been edited out of our explanations (edited for social reasons)
  • causality is a way of talking, it does not exist in the world

Example: We hit the billiard ball with the cue and it knocks the other ball.  The first ball moving causes the second one to move.  Easy? But:

  • if the table underneath was a pool of liquid, none of this would happen
  • if I had not hit the first ball, nothing would have happened; or if I missed, did not use chalk, broke the cue, etc.
  • the ball moving stands out clearly from the background but all the background contexts are also ‘causing’ the event to occur
  • because the action of the balls hitting is easy and salient, this will make a good, easily digested story about causality

Example: We never say that electricity ’causes’ the computer to write on Facebook, but if we unplug the computer from the wall…

Finally: saying that some event was ’caused’ because of someone’s ‘personality’ is an example of possibly the worst of all causal explanations–ones that use abstract and even unobservable ’causes’.

But you want to know the amazing thing?

That because of all I have said above, read it again carefully, these sorts of abstract and unobservable ’causes’  turn out to be readily and eagerly accepted by people… people love them!they revel in them… they loathe complex explanations… And this includes all the explanations with causality assigned to abstractions, such as ‘race’, ‘gender’, ‘cognitive processes’, brain processes, personality, etc.


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