Scientific Causality and the Laws of Nature

©1997 Dennis Leri

I promised in the last article to talk about Moshe's 'mental furniture.' I begin with the notion of causality. The scientific and pedagogical traditions that inform Moshe's work employ causality. Moshe loathed facile, uncritical 'cause-effect' reasoning. However, he adhered to scientific explanation in those domains where it was applicable. Scientific causality in the proper context is a forcefully persuasive concept. When misunderstood it can be misused and inappropriately applied. Pedagogical causality concerns itself with the quest for understanding, freedom and self-determination and will receive its own column.

David Bohm begins his book Causality and Chance in Modern Physics with "In nature nothing remains constant. Everything is in a perpetual state of transformation, motion and change. However, we discover that nothing simply surges up out of nothing without having antecedents that existed before. Likewise, nothing ever disappears without a trace, in the sense that it gives rise to absolutely nothing existing at later times. This general characteristic of the world can be expressed in terms of a principle which summarizes an enormous domain of different kinds of experience and which has never yet been contradicted in any observation or experiment, scientific or otherwise; namely, everything comes from other things and gives rise to other things." He goes on to say, "This principle is not yet a statement of the existence of causality in nature. Indeed it is even more fundamental than causality, for it is at the foundation of the possibility of our understanding nature in a rational way."

To arrive at scientific causality, relationships that remain constant amidst the complex processes of change and transformation are noted and studied. Specific constant relationships that emerge and are not coincidental are interpreted as 'necessary relationships.' 'Causal law' is the term given to necessary relationships between objects, events, conditions or other things at one given time and those at later times. However, the necessity of a causal law is never absolute. For example, things usually fall to the ground when we release them from our hand. Let's say it is a photo of Moshe and 'by chance' it's caught up by a gust of wind and is blown up, up and away. Bohm: " must conceive of the law of nature as necessary only if one abstracts from contingencies." Contingency is defined as the opposite of necessity. Chance as a form of contingency is outside the scope of things that can be treated by causal laws. Chance events do not necessarily follow from any specifiable laws. How and what does one abstract from contingencies?

'To abstract' means literally to 'take out.' Bohm: "When one abstracts something, one simplifies it by conceptually taking it out of its full context ...this is done by taking out what is common to a wide variety of similar things. Thus, abstractions tend to have a certain generality. Whether a particular abstraction is valid in a given situation then depends on the extent to which those factors that it ignores do produce negligible effects in the problems of interest." It takes training to know how and what to abstract. One needs to know how to select those factors that are important and relevant. The word 'relevant' has a meaning linked to that of abstract. Relevant is an adjective derived from the verb 'relevate' which in turn comes from the root 'to levate' which means 'to lift.' 'To levate' is used to describe the kinds of acts that lift into attention any content whatsoever, even the very act of lifting into attention. 'To re-levate' add the prefix 're' which signifies 'again' adding to 'levate' the notion of time through recurrence. What recurs is a similarity but also difference, since each occasion is not only similar but different. Something strikes us as relevant because we re-cognize 'that' distinction or 'that' difference again. If we no longer recognize it, it becomes 'irrelevant'. Constant relationships that are relevant, that are lifted into attention and kept in attention are thereby abstracted. In establishing causality we need to make relevant abstractions.

Lifting out constant relationships is the first step towards causality. A causal law suggests itself when a constant relationship, or regularity, is seen to hold within the flux and flow of a variety of conditions. Regularities appear along with irregularities. But, as a side note, what may seem like an irregularity when first observed may in a later context be seen as having a higher order regularity. Detecting regularities and supposing them to be the results of causal laws allows us to go on to make hypotheses, i.e., abductions, concerning these supposed laws. The Greek root of the word hypotheses indicates a supposition 'put under' our reasoning as a provisional base to be tested via induction for its truth or falsity. If found wanting, that is, if the hypothesis is not verifiable then other ones are formed and tried. It is integral to the scientific method that a hypothesis be falsifiable. If a supposition cannot be demonstrated to be false, then any truth it may assert will have limited explanatory value.

In considering causal relationships, one must be careful to distinguish them from merely associated events. For example, before winter begins, the leaves generally fall off trees. But this loss of leaves is the effect of the lowering of temperature and not the cause of winter. So clearly the concept of a causal relationship implies more than just regular association in which one set of events precedes another in time. Future effects come out of past causes through a process satisfying necessary relationships. Mere association is not enough. One must show that a given set of events or conditions comes necessarily from another. Changes in one or more of the presumed causes must always produce corresponding changes in the effects. Other factors must be held constant. In considering a large number of cases co-ordinating changes on two separate sets of events strengthens the hypothesis of a causal connection. The tests, or demonstrated co-ordinations, must be reproducible. If they are not, it is evidence that there are more causes or fewer causes or other causes of the observed effects. But if it is a strong hypothesis then there is a level of predictability that comes about.

One can predict that given a specific set of conditions certain effects will follow from causes. A more subtle result is that new phenomena can be predicted. Broadening the domain of applicability of a hypothesis one arrives at laws of nature. These laws are not like legal laws applied externally to limit the course of events to certain prescribed paths but are inherent and essential aspects of things. To construct 'laws of nature' as a general category of law we need to include causal laws, laws of chance, and laws relating these two classes of law. Causality and chance are both abstractions. They are two views of any object (taking this word in its broadest sense). They are essential to effectively organizing conception and perception. Seeing constant relationships means also seeing that which is not constant, i.e., the result of chance. If we define causality we must define chance. One can even formalize the acts of perception that distinguish causality from chance. Laws of nature are constructed by human beings to account for all phenomena under consideration and to define what is causal and what is contingent. I will discuss the process of constructing meaning in a later column on Piaget.

Newton's insight of the universal law of gravity could be stated like this: As the apple falls, so does the moon, and so indeed does everything. Explicitly,

A : B:: C : D :: E : F

where A and B represent successive positions of the apple at successive moments of time, C and D those of the moon, and E and F of any other object. This insight of Newton is as seductive as it is reductive. It is a compelling hypothesis that relates the behavior of all physical objects in the universe. It is elegant, simple and testable. It led the way in the quest by subsequent thinkers to reduce all phenomena to physical and testable laws.

Moshe Feldenkrais was a world-class scientist who could clearly distinguish at what level of human functioning cause-effect thinking is and is not relevant. Next time I will give examples from the history of causality relevant to our work. So we close with the notions of causality and the laws of nature as our first pieces of mental furniture.