Degrees of Causality and Human Stupidity.

Lately I have been trying to think of a new way to rank human stupidity that takes into account that very clever people often make stupid decisions and simple people are very often wise. I think it has something to do with understanding multiple degrees of causality. Let me explain:

All events, however insignificant, are the result of unfathomably complex networks of cause and effect – labyrinthine relationships so convoluted they can’t be unravelled by the conscious mind. In trying to understand how the world works we have developed two basic approaches: “not thinking about it at all”, and “thinking about it a whole heck of a lot.”

Simple people tend toward the former, while clever people gravitate toward the latter – like poorly trained domestic dogs to the legs of seated strangers. Not only that, but when they finally figure something out, they go and DO stuff, which introduces a brand new factor of causality into the mix, thus complicating problems even more.

There is a reason clever people suck at being wise. I learned all about it reading Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind. In brief, the rational mind is crap at solving complex, non-linear problems. Oh, it’s great for adding up the grocery bill, but worthless when it comes to dealing with things like climate change or child poverty.

The rational mind can understand a few degrees of causality at most. After that it gets confused, frustrated and distressed. You can see evidence of this in the way many people harbour an irrational fear and hatred of the homeless. They settle on a single degree of causality – wilful laziness – and refuse to look further, into the dark realms of mental illness, bankruptcy, child abuse, the prison and parole system, drug addiction, the preposterousness of land being bought and sold, and all the interwoven factors that might cause a person in a capitalist society to become the ultimate symbol of social exclusion.

To one who fancies herself clever, trusts reason to open the door to understanding and fears her irrational mind, the world is a simple place. Bad things are done by bad people. Good people do good things. Water comes from the tap. Food comes from the grocery store. Petrol comes from the filling station. It can get much more sophisticated (ie. petrol comes from oil, which comes from the ground and is fossilised vegetation, etc.) but no matter how many extra degrees of causality you add to a single thread, it’s fundamentally the same type of thinking.

To a simple person who does not bother much with thinking – one who allows the subconscious to piece together a picture from the vast and complex web of causality in every event – water, food, and energy come from the void and the void is steeped in mystery. A simple soul is cautious not to mess with the unknown, for fear of interrupting the vital flow of water, food and energy.

These days clever people are solving all the problems of the world in a linear fashion, one at a time, rationally, with technology, research and innovation. At the same time, simple people – most of them far, far away from here – are growing food and saving seeds, as they always have, and as their mothers and grandmothers always have.

I can’t say whether I’m simple or clever myself, but I am pragmatic. One thing I understand about the preposterously complex problems of global warming and peak oil is that together they add up to a food shortage, especially in parts of the world that eat almost nothing but imported, petroleum-dependent food. Ie. all the parts I live in. So I sure wish there were more simple people around. Clever people are so busy thinking about how we are going to power our cars and transport our made-in-China brand names, they have forgotten to consider how we will feed ourselves.

WWII Dig for Victory ad from the UK

WWII "Dig for Victory" ad from the UK, circa 1942


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13 Responses to “Degrees of Causality and Human Stupidity.”

  1. Paul Says:

    Thank you for yet another well written and thought provoking post!

    Some time ago, I began an effort to rely more on my intuition when making important life decisions. On paper, the process is simple. I consult my intuition, and then check it against reason and evidence. If all is in harmony, I go with it. On the whole, I think I’ve made wiser decisions since I began taking that approach.

  2. apophaticattic Says:

    A good choice. I have a friend who relies on reason alone to make all her decisions – even those involving love and relationships, and she is a mess. She gets so tied up in knots sometimes she feels sick and can’t make any decisions at all. I tend to go with intuition or do nothing. Sometimes I call it the “walk through the door that happens to be open” approach. It has its down side in terms of existential angst and a fundamental sense of meaninglessness, but at least I never have doubts and regrets.

  3. Henry Galt Says:

    Intuition rules. Hindsight is kinda cool too.
    I am nearly 60. A long time ago the world moratorium on Antarctica, and its treasures, was used to hide what had, up until that time, been bragged about in regard to the size of finds. The main one’s I remember were; A coalfiled the size of Wales, 1/2 a mile thick and comprised of the World’s finest quality anthracite. Many coalfileds of similar size. Oilfileds (plural) bigger than the, then measured, largest Arabian ones. More uranium than had ever been extracted. Copper ditto. Bauxite reserves bigger than those which had already been admitted to elsewhere.
    Shame about the depth of ice and the ambient temps.
    There is no peak oil (not for a couple hundred years anyway and if we ain’t weaned off it by then we deserve what we get) and it is just as cold here, in the UK, as it was when I was much younger.

  4. apophaticattic Says:

    Hiya Henry. I agree that hindsight is kinda cool, but useless when divorced from foresight. Hindsight can show you what happened in various cultures that experienced peak wood (back when that was our primary source of energy). Nobody expected it, nobody prepared for it, and catastrophe ensued, and cultures that couldn’t find a better source of energy collapsed. Foresight can inform us that if we accept the fact that we can not forever sustain ourselves on non-renewable energy resources and begin to change NOW, before the resources run out, our children, and our children’s children, have a shot at a comfortable future. Does it really matter if oil runs out today or a hundred years from now? It WILL run out, and alternative, renewable energy technologies are available TODAY. So, why not use them?

    Thanks for your comments, always nice to hear opposing views.

  5. baekho Says:

    This is an absolutely fantastic post, and I think I’m going to pick up a copy of “Hare Brain, Tortise Mind”.

    As you might imagine I resonate pretty strongly with what you’ve written here but I would add that we can still reform the way the rational mind functions to take into account the interdependent causal web. Systems Engineering, for instance, is an emerging discipline* that does a good job of this, and the type of thinking employed here is also used in other emerging fields like industrial ecology which just might help us out of the environmental mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

    *That’s kind of a joke since the phenomenon of “emergence” plays kind of a big role in SE. 😛

  6. apophaticattic Says:

    Thanks, Baekho! The book is excellent – one of my top ten non-fiction books – possibly even number one. It has revolutionized the way I think about thinking. His writing style is lovely too.

  7. Sr. Mail Relative Says:

    Interesting perspective, but there is something missing. In the real world, different types of problems have different complexity. Predicting whether water will come from the tap is at one end of the scale. Predicting weather is somewhere in the middle. Predicting climate or modelling ecosystems is at the far end. Unpredictable even in theory. Even God and all His angles (if he and they exist) could predict the climate.

    To get back to your comments: Some people complicate simple things; some people (religious types) impossibly simplify.

    One last comment: Scientists and Engineers routinely follow long, long chains of causality. That’s why (f’r instance) crash investigations take years and some people spend a lifetime unravelling the language of bees.

  8. apophaticattic Says:

    Hi there, pop! Good to see you.

    I agree with you – in retrospect I felt it was a little simplistic too (especially after the boyfriend pointed it out). Certainly, the more degrees of causality we consciously try to take into account – and the better we recognize we can’t possibly catch it all – the wiser we can be. When I started the post I was thinking of traditional farmers vs engineers here. In a very general sense, a traditional farmer would (simply and harmlessly) wait for the rain where an engineer would (cleverly and catastrophically) divert a river. I was somewhat inspired by Julian Caldecott’s book “Water”, which is very keen on local action by simple people who live in shacks and very critical of engineers. Then again, he is a scientist himself.

    Scientists are definitely in their own category. I don’t know whether it’s because they measure huge chains of causality and try to avoid unfounded assumptions or because they are aware of the vast mystery that lies in wait where knowledge runs out. Guy Claxton (in the book I linked to above) shares examples of scientists drawing on the superior effectiveness of the subconscious mind to put immensely complex patterns together when they come up with their “breakthroughs”, which seem to occur quite often as they’re drifting off to sleep or thinking of something else entirely.

    Anyway, both Taoist “simplicity” and scientific method are essentially based on the intense observation of nature with a particular (open) frame of mind.

  9. W Brown Says:

    Truly amazing thinkers (such as Albert Einstein and Richard Feinman) seem to have BOTH the ability to grasp the big picture AND the ability to slog out the boring factual details. I’ve always felt that the role of logic is to build a scaffold under ideas that were arrived at intuitively. Sadly, that means that “logical” reasons can usually be found for anything that “feels right”. This is especially true when the underlying situation is so complex that it defies “reasonable” investigation. This is true, for example, of “Free Trade”.

    When you think about it, it’s incredible that we actually do learn some hard facts about the world we live in.

  10. W Brown Says:

    Scuze me. I have one other comment. If you want to see the ability of humans to follow incredibly long chains of inference, check into the details of any major aircraft crash. This is detective work on an awesome scale.

  11. apophaticattic Says:

    “I’ve always felt that the role of logic is to build a scaffold under ideas that were arrived at intuitively. Sadly, that means that “logical” reasons can usually be found for anything that “feels right”. ”

    That’s so true. I often find myself caught in that conundrum – “do my ideas seem rational to me because I have constructed myself a nice coherent framework to support my unexamined intuitive / aesthetic idealism, or have I arrived at my intuitive / aesthetic ideals logically?” It doesn’t help that it’s pretty much impossible to be objective about my own mental processes. I only know that it amazes me what kind of sloppy thinking other people claim is “logical” or “rational” or “common sense” (intelligent design leaps to mind). While I desperately hope I am not constructing my world view the same way they are I suspect I probably am.

  12. Old Man Says:

    Unfortunately, our muddiest thinking tends to concern the things that matter most to us. We fantasize about other people’s motives. We carry grudges for reasons that are far from objective. We go through life clutching a certain knowledge of what’s right and wrong.

  13. apophaticattic Says:


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