Rational Religion

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Cause, Effect and Purpose


Human intelligence is so geared, possibly genetically, to dealing with Cause and Effect that the unique, one-way connection between the two concepts pretty much dominates our intellectual life.


We are so certain that the investigation of these relationships is IMPORTANT that any obvious severance of the connection is puzzling and often disturbing. 


Motive is often the most crucial determination in solving crimes; so that apparently "motiveless" crimes are the hardest to solve; and to prove in court, despite a good deal of circumstantial evidence. 


Fortunately, most such "motiveless" crimes are motivated by the particular malcreant's mental illnesses, which often are obsessive enough to force repeat performances, eventually getting him or her caught; or aberrant enough to attract attention and suspicion. 


What is missing in a truly "motiveless" crime is the purpose; the "why" of the thing.


It must be noted that "why" is a uniquely human question, or at least the property of a central nervous system with Promethean capabilities.  It is therefore most often confused with "purpose," which is the assumption that there must be an intellectually logical reason for everything.


"Why" is one of the most commonly asked of all questions, and because of our curious nature and our impetus to trace cause and effect in all matters which come to our attention, it has become inextricably tangled in human cultures and human mental processes with cause and effect.  It is, in fact, the bridge between our personal, internal, metaphysical worlds and those of others (which is sociology and psychology), plus our intellectual causeway into the vast, external Universe (which is physics.)


Because "why" occasionally and dramatically leads to a revelation of Purpose, we characteristically leap to the conclusion that it always must.


By close association, then, cause and effect are most often assumed to be wedded to purpose; or purpose is thought to be an inseparable element of the cause and effect search.


This is not true.  Purpose is a strictly human concept. 


Cause and effect - except when they spring from human activities and deal exclusively with human concerns - are artifacts of the Universe at Large.  They may affect us, certainly, but there is no purpose implicit in the affect.  The asteroid does not "intend" to strike the inhabited planet; the tornado does not "decide" to level this town and leave its neighbor unscathed.


Shit happens.  Indeed it does.  And the crucial determination is whether it has happened as a result of the physics of the universe, and nothing much we do can influence it, or whether it is the result of human interaction, in which case we might be able to do something about it.


It intrigues me that many of the practitioners of humanity's most pristine intellectual activity, Scientific Method, very often become entangled in the Purpose vs. Cause and Effect red herring.


Purpose is important to most people, even  - perhaps especially - the most intelligent ones. 


The fact that a good deal of the phenomena that science deals with on a day to day basis, have no discernable purpose can be as deeply disturbing to a scientist as it might be to the most superstition-ridden metaphysician. 


Get used to it. 


WE very probably have no purpose, except to ourselves. 


That, of course, is a VERY big EXCEPT


It is quite large enough, in fact, to keep us all doing good works and important investigations just as though we had the "larger purpose" that nearly all religions and indeed most schools of philosophy insist we have.


You query, "If the entire Universe has no purpose, why should I bother to behave in a moral and responsible way, especially if it contradicts my personal interests?"


Because, you Ninny! the human race and the biosphere surrounding it are full of purpose, and ethics and morality are the way we avoid committing mayhem upon all those other purposes - and attracting retaliation upon our own. 


Whether or not life, itself, is purposeless and is fated to represent only a miniscule fraction on the timeline of the Universe is totally irrelevant.   It is here, now, and we are part of it.


Behave yourself!


But knowing that Purpose is all human invention, and keeping that in mind in crucial mental activities, can make a number of those activities more efficient and the answers they formulate much closer to useful Universal truths.


In our modern cosmology, do we have the Big Bang because some such phenomenon actually occurred, or because the idea of a "First Cause" -- purpose more or less implied  -- is much easier to wrap the mind around than a truly open-ended universe with nothing but infinity on both ends of the time line?


A classical Cause and Effect inquiry - for a scientist as well as a lay observer - involves the same set of questions which are answered by the lead paragraph in a good news story:  What, When, Who, Where, How and the ineffable Why.


But not in this same order of importance. 


For a news writer, after she or he has accurately defined the phenomenon  -  the what - (and this is no mean feat as the "corrected" follow-ups to just about any breaking news story amply attest) the professional concerns are the time and place of the occurrence.  When is important because the definition of news is being there to report it first; Where, because the newspaper or TV station's customers will be interested in the event more or less in relation to its nearness to them.  "Who," of course is the "human interest;" the reason the news is a story in the first place.  “Why” may not even be dealt with, since it too often involves speculation, which is editorializing and must not be represented as “News.”


The relative importance of these elements in the minds of the newspaper's readers determines which of the pertinent questions is answered first.  If the event happened to a person of prominence, the Who might be stressed;   if it happened in an unusual setting, the Where;  if "man bites dog," the What.  Etc.


A Cause and Effect analysis is much more concerned - after observing the what - with how and why because they lead in a direct line from the cause to the effect; or from the phenomenon itself back to the initiator(s) .


In almost any occurrence, the lay observer's task is much less demanding - and time-consuming - than the professional's.  All the everyday citizen has to do, after getting the story fairly straight (What actually did happen, probably, and how far did the fallout reach?)  is to postulate a more or less logical series of connections and convince him-or-her-self that these were indeed the case. 


This exercise, of course, occasionally leads to the fanciful definition of cataclysmic terrorism as divine retribution and mischievous crop circles as the work of extraterrestrial intelligences; not very useful for anything but resolving the doubts and confusions in the unsophisticated observer's mind.


The investigating scientist has a much more rigorous row to cultivate.


After defining the what to the point of absolutely minimum error, the researcher must painstakingly eliminate each and every "logical" but spurious postulate until nothing remains but a trail of objective fact, leading directly from the phenomenon back to its initiator (or complex of initiators, which is the usual case).


And just as it is for the news reporter, simply getting the facts straight about the what of a scientific investigation can take years; decades; millennia.  


In recent history, note that it took several years for medical researchers to realize what they were dealing with in the case of AIDS.  The disease didn't even have a name for a good while because it presents in several diverse symptoms and the people treating those symptoms had not yet caught onto the fact that they were dealing with a single disease.  As long as 15 years into the epidemic there was still a stubborn school of respected epidemiologists who insisted that the consensus was all wrong and the identified AIDS virus wasn't the culprit at all, but just one more attendant symptom...like a runny nose accompanying a cold. 


A much longer and no less tortuous inquiry involves malaria, which is an old disease with a tragic history in many parts of the world.  Without a germ theory of disease, physicians and investigators from ancient Egypt to the late 1800's fumbled about in an obscuring cloud of mystery and inevitable frustration.


But even once research has nailed down the what of a phenomenon and defined it with the least possible margin of error, the task of ferreting out the how and the why remains.  For both AIDS and malaria that task is still ongoing.  We "understand" both of them a good deal better than we did, but the fact that they are still killing us reveals how much we still have to learn. 


Even so, the task of the medical researcher is much less frustrating than that of the astronomer.  The pathologist, after he has defined what it is that is killing people, can employ a number of techniques to investigate the how and the why, from direct microscopic observation of the infectious process to transferring the disease to a number of unfortunate mice or other "lower animals" to track its progress.


The cosmologist is stuck with looking at what is going on in the Universe, constructing theories and drawing tentative conclusions from a menu of phenomena which are not and conceivably never will be under his or her control.  There is, in short, very little "experimentation" possible; a few extraterrestrial probes sent to neighboring planets or satellites, perhaps, with the attendant testing of the theories of gravity and inertia.   Most of astronomy is squinting through the eyepieces of ever-larger and more efficient telescopes, poring through stacks of photographs and analyzing spectrographs.


The human scale of time against that of the Universe, moreover, is so miniscule that the observation of the cosmos is rather like looking at one frame of a movie print and trying to postulate the plot. 


But physics has dealt us a wild card!  The process of astronomical investigation is assisted by the fact that the finite speed of light enables us - with those ever-larger telescopes - to peer deeper and deeper into our surroundings, and therefore farther and farther into the past.  It's still a static snapshot of conditions at our location at this particular time, but it does enable us to get a rough idea of a continuum; what the Universe was like at successive stages of its evolution. 


It's not as good as experimentation, but it's a hell of a lot better than being stuck in a geocentric cosmos, surrounded by concentric spheres carrying the sun, moon and observable stars and planets, as we were in the time of Copernicus and Galileo. 


And occasionally we are presented with the opportunity for a direct observation on our own time scale; such as the chance explosion of a supernova close enough to see; or the exciting and spectacular crash of Comet Shoemaker-Levy into the atmosphere of Jupiter a few years back.


That was a rare and powerful demonstration of the accuracy of current cosmological theory, attended by some un-anticipatable surprises. 


Comets have for some time been known to be composed mostly of water and gaseous ices.  As they approach the sun in long, elliptical orbits, they melt - or more accurately, sublimate - giving off a gaseous tail of mixed pedigree which extends not behind the comet in its orbit but, due to the pressure of the solar wind, on the comet's "leeward" side, away from the sun.


This confirms a number of theories, such as the strength of the solar wind vs. gravity, the density and attenuation of the emitted gases, etc. 


But there remains a lively debate about the actual physical composition of the typical comet.  Is it mainly a large block of water ice with gaseous and solid inclusions or is it a "dirty snowball," rather fluffy and loosely bound by its own gravity and susceptible to disturbances subtler than melting or sublimation by the sun's heat?


Shoemaker-Levy answered that question pretty spectacularly, at least for that particular comet. 


It had been known to astronomy from past orbits and even surmised to be fated to collide some day with Jupiter.  Some observers even hoped to see that happen, though the chances were considered slim.


What did happen was that on its next-to-last orbit Shoemaker-Levy missed the giant planet by just enough to plow through the outer reaches of its monstrous gravitational field.    Although there were no observations of the actual occurrence, on its next (and last) time around it became obvious what had happened as a result of this grazing near miss. 


Shoemaker-Levy was dissociated into a string of orbiting bodies of various sizes, much like a hand-full of loosely packed snow might succumb to air pressure and the stress of being thrown here on earth! 


The result was a spectacular, astronomical "string of pearls" glowing in reflected sunlight and easily observable in the astronomers' telescopes.  Great color photos of the torn-apart comet graced the pages of every scientific publication on the planet.  A quick calculation of its orbit revealed that this was to be, indeed, its final pass.  It would plow into Jupiter in not one but a series of minor (for that great body) cataclysms, some of which should be observable from earth. 


As it turned out, the comet fragments hit Jupiter just "around the corner" from Earth observation, but close enough to the "rising" limb of the swiftly-turning giant (only nine hours to whirl that huge mass on its axis) that we could see the effects only minutes after the impact.


And the effects were spectacularly greater than even the most "far out" predictions!  The impacts left huge, Earth and Moon-sized blotches easily visible on Jupiter's observable surface (really the tops of the planet's highest clouds of various gasses) and evidently penetrating many hundreds of kilometers below. 


The whole occurrence answered a number of questions about Jupiter's atmosphere and the composition of the comet; and of course raised myriads more. 


One thing it "settled" was how much damage such a "dirty snowball" could - by extrapolation - do to a much smaller planet such as Earth, with a much less dense atmosphere. Astrophysicists who were concerned by near-earth stony asteroids but more dismissive of a tenuous comet were forced to reassess their parameters of risk. 


The lesson in all of the above is that phenomena themselves are difficult to define with accuracy; and even once we understand them pretty well the tracing of the path from Effect back to Cause can be extraordinarily difficult.   Accurately predicting future effects from similar causes proves well-nigh impossible.


What the process does not need is the interference of a lot of cultural biases, from religious orthodoxies to anthropocentric assignments of "Purpose" to cloud the view. 


So How is almost always a valid element of scientific inquiry, tracing a chain of events from Cause to Effect.  Why is useful as an element or close associate of how, when it deals exclusively with physical phenomena.  As soon as why becomes a question implying motivation, it is no longer useful, but an impediment. 


 The trick, for most observers - even those involved in science - is to determine when and under what conditions why changes its spots. 


The litmus test, of course, is Purpose.  Once Purpose becomes involved that line of scientific inquiry is useless.


On the other hand, in strictly human affairs - from the bedroom to the boardroom to the courtroom - Purpose is all-important.


Just be warned that, being a human concept, it is also inconstant.  People's motives change as the situation, their health, their hormones change.  And no two people's Purposes in any situation are ever quite identical, even though they think they agree perfectly.