Cause & Effect, Control

The idea that the natural world functions via mechanistic processes of cause-and-effect is powerfully attractive to people in Western culture, the cognitive foundation of its worldview for a very long time indeed. Cause and effect is the functional mechanism that makes objectivity and control with consequence-immunity ontologically possible. Complexity theory’s non-linear, non-causal nature therefore creates serious cognitive disturbances for a number of scholars. Some have sidestepped the discomfort by demoting complexity theory from a mathematically-based descriptor of reality to a metaphor. Others have gone in the opposite direction, accepting complexity as a mathematically-based descriptor of reality but reframing the processes those equations describe as mechanistic ones of cause and effect that have simply proven too hard for humans to understand yet. One of the latter is UCLA computer scientist Judea Pearle, who has written The Book of Why with co-author Dana Mackenzie to propose a “new science of cause and effect” in which supercomputers and artificial intelligence will successfully reduce complex processes of self-organization and emergence to linear chains of specific actions, causes, and conditions that produce highly predictable outcomes.

What’s really interesting about this is the way that Pearle and Mackenzie go so far as to:

“argue that members of our species think natively in causal terms, perhaps because this has proven a successful way to model the world. It is extremely difficult, and probably pointless, for us to comprehend purely associative information, and we will always try, whether sanctioned or not, to code associative information in terms of causal connections – even when these associations are in fact spurious” (Powell 2018:52).

In other words, causation is so fundamental to the Western epistemic paradigm that the authors are unable to see it as a cultural bias and instead make the claim that causal thinking is a universal human trait neurologically hard-wired in the genes. While I hesitate to make a sweeping generalization about “Indigeneity” as a whole, I can at least say that in my own experience, there is a very noticeable difference between my scientifically-trained ability to see the world in causal terms, and my much deeper Indigenous worldview-based ability to “comprehend purely associative information” (to use the language in this passage). So I would like to suggest that Pearle and Mackenzie’s reference to “our species” (in the passage I just cited) should be replaced with “Western culture,” as I think it is more correct to say that “members of Western culture think natively in causal terms.” Further, having made this change, I’m not sure the adverb “natively” is still an appropriate modifier for the verb “think.” A cultural way of thinking or of seeing the world is, by definition, not innate or genetically-based so can’t be “native” in the way that term has been used here.

Also, and again this is based on my own experience as an Indigenous scientist, I think it is this non-causal, “purely associative information” approach to the natural world that permits Indigenous people to embrace ambiguity. Causation generates flow charts of “how things work” with yes/no junctures and single outcomes that are logically either “this one” or “that one.” So people who approach the world causally have a very hard time tolerating ambiguity. Ambiguity does not have to be resolved (can be tolerated) in an ontologic reality in which some situations are appropriately characterized by “both/and” or “all/and” conditions.

An example of the relationship between Western culture’s focus on causality and its need to resolve ambiguity is evident in a lively dialogue between eminent evaluation Elder Edmund Gordon, Cree scholar Shawn Wilson, and myself (with Ryan Heavy Head and several others at other times during that same meeting) in 2015. In this portion of a larger conversation about Indigenist (meaning, within Indigenous worldview) learning, Ed Gordon struggled to understand Shawn Wilson’s emphasis on relationship as a core epistemic system in Indigenous culture. Ed said this emphasis:

“. . . did not allow him to separate Indigenist learning from other systems of learning. That was true whether one thought of relational generativity of knowledge — the process of generating knowledge through relationship — or relational adjudication — the idea that knowledge is assessed or evaluated through or within relationship. In fact, the more he thought about relational adjudication, the more it seemed to him that it could produce paradoxical results that would have to be resolved in some way. And that way would have to lie outside the relational knowledge system to get any leverage. Such a shift would require us to surrender relational knowing as a sort of ultimate core process. . .Maybe we are looking for differences that are not real here. Maybe the fundamental processes are the same. It could be that the differences we think we see are artificial or imposed” (Adams, Wilson, Heavy Head, and Gordon 2015:23-24).

Shawn’s thoughtful and respectful reply was that:

“Well, one difference I do think I notice is the idea that ambiguity needs to be resolved. You spoke of it as a challenge to relational adjudication just now, that it could produce a paradox that has to be resolved. But in my experience, I’ve found that ambiguity is sometimes necessary. I don’t feel the need to resolve it. So maybe our different assumptions about the need to resolve ambiguity are one real difference between our systems of understanding” (op cit).

At this point in the same conversation, I raised the closely-related epistemic issue of participatory observation. “Embracing ambiguity” and “participant observation” are parts of a single Indigenous epistemic system, in the same way that “the need to resolve ambiguity” and “objective observation” (by someone who stands outside of whatever is being observed) are parts of a single Western epistemic system. I observed that:

“. . . the participatory nature of knowledge acquisition is also different. . . [Western culture’s] objective learning . . . necessarily takes place outside of or apart from whatever is being learned about. This is seen as the only means of producing reliable information. In a relational system, participation — being in relationship to the thing you are learning about and to the knowledge itself — is essential to the learning process. I mean, if knowledge is generated through relationship, you literally cannot learn if you take an objective ‘apart’ outside the thing you’re trying to understand. Which does take us back to relationality as a core process.”

What we are seeing here is how the Indigenous epistemic process of relationship actually generates a worldview in which Indigenous people not only “comprehend purely associative information” but embrace and align ourselves with it. Ceremony reweaves our relationships and regrounds us within the power and significance of those connections, which is why we are able to “accept reality as it is” instead of trying to change it to suit human desires (Adams, Barlo, and Belasco 2021). Since “it’s wanting to change things so they are the way we want them to be that makes [people of Western culture] want to control nature” (op cit), causation winds up being a pivotal epistemic point in how we approach environmental intervention and evaluation.

Seeing causation in this larger paradigmatic perspective makes using supercomputers and AI to unlock cause and effect in natural complex ecosystems seem about as revolutionary as developing a powerful new gasoline additive to boost the horsepower of combustion automobile engines just at the moment when car manufacturing plants stop building cars with internal combustion engines. What would be the point? Who is that additive going to serve, and for how long? There is a point in a paradigm shift when the old paradigm fails and fades enough that even the parts of it that are still attractive are simply no longer relevant. This is precisely the transition point in which evaluation finds itself, and with which it must deal in some meaningful way if there’s a paradigm shift to be made — and it won’t require supercomputers to do it. Evaluators need to focus, not on the tangled strands of cause-and-effect in ecosystems, but on the snarled knot of intertwined Western epistemology, ontology, and axiology that trip up the feet of evaluators who step clear of one strand but don’t even see the others that still bind them.

Breaching the wall between nature and self, as mainstream evaluators want to do, requires forging relationship instead of a wall. The Western epistemic system excludes relational knowing by demanding that people stand wholly outside of and apart from the natural world in order to observe it objectively. Objectivity is about separation, not relationship. So it is literally not possible for people of Western culture to breach the wall between themselves and nature unless they expand their epistemic systems.

Click here to return to the list of pages at Weaving the Basket.
Click here for list of References.