Monday 12 March 2012

A new model of causality necessary: fields versus causal chains


Perhaps the single most important thing I am getting from my readings of Rupert Sheldrake and ideas of morphogenetic fields, morphic resonance etc - is an awareness of how limited was my view of causation.

I had a very linear view of causation resembling a series of idealized billiard balls colliding: A hits B making it move and hit C; or A causes B causes C.

I term these causal chains.


This was always at the back of my mind when doing science - that for science to be potentially testable and potentially useful it ought to have clear causal chains.

As a theorist it was my function to suggest causal chains which were aimed at being reasonably correct descriptions of highly selected bits of reality; but much simpler than reality therefore being comprehensible and predictive.


I don't think there is anything wrong with trying to do this, except that - in the usual way for humans - I come to believe that what I did was the only thing that could properly be done; so that I would evaluate all knowledge on whether or not I could reduce it to clear, simple causal chains; and to assume that that which could not be so reduced was not comprehended and so was useless.


(This seems to me the great hazard of expertise of any sort - but especially intellectual expertise. That having trained oneself into specialist cognitive expertise, that becomes the dominant and most authoritative mode of thought, and the exclusions and assumptions which underpin that mode of thought fail to be recognised as exclusions and assumptions; such that they are taken to be facts and discoveries. So the scientist who excludes divine causes as a matter of assumption, and learns a mode of thought which proceeds without reference to divine causes, gradually comes to believe that science has discovered that God does not exist.)


But I have found that there is another way of thinking, in terms of fields, which is qualitatively different from causal chain thinking, yet is similarly clear and simple and predictive.

It is not that field thinking is more true, necessarily, nor better (both causal chains and fields are extremely simplified models of reality, both are gross reductions of reality) - but that field thinking is at least as true, and has different applicabilities - so that problems not amenable to causal chain thinking may yield to field thinking.


However, field thinking is qualitatively different from causal chain thinking, and they cannot be combined; one can merely decide which mode to use in a specific situation; or use them hierarchically (typically with fields regarded as primary and general, and causal chains as secondary, specific, and local).


This is the deepest reason which Sheldrake's ideas are not as influential as one might expect them to be.

Even when a scientist is convinced of the validity of this mode of thinking, he finds that it is incommensurable with his existing knowledge - which is in the form of causal chain thinking.

The scientist can place his own causal chain thinking inside a larger, inclusive framework of field thinking, perhaps - but that will not affect the nature of his own specific knowledge and work.

Field thinking is thus experienced as abstract and optional with respect to his day-to-day practise.


The alternative is, for someone with experience and expertise, too radical to contemplate - to discard everything he 'knows' and re-explain it in terms of fields.

To give-up and start again!

Yet this seems neither necessary nor sensible; since causal chain thinking has been very useful in many situations.


The answer is that both field thinking and causal chain thinking are metaphysical assumptions, metaphysical descriptions - they are not discoveries, they come before science, they frame science.

And the proper realm for discussing their relationship is explicitly metaphysical - and in detachment from science, which confuses the issue.


What then is the metaphysical reflection for? (...Since metaphysics is clearly optional - optional not least because it is cognitively impossible for most people in the world.)

I would say metaphysics is for its value in everyday experience and common sense.

From this perspective metaphysics will vary between individuals, and probably both causal chain thinking and field thinking are much too abstract for most people - which does not mean they are worthless or wrong, but they are incomplete and distorting, necessarily and in an ultimate sense.


What then is the most fundamental 'metaphysics'?

Maybe it is the story...



SonofMoses said...

Dear Bruce,
are you aware of Steve Talbott's work on the cell? Here is a useful summary with links:

Cantillonblog said...

This is funnily enough, the only sane way to think about developments in financial markets and the economy. Most people these days seem to be trapped in a shall we say 'thought prison' that excludes any concept of fields. So when there is a major move in the market, almost nobody sees it coming before it happens.

I first started digging a bit deeper into Sheldrake after somebody else pointed out the connection with financial markets. I corresponded with him directly and he was curious about it, but I don't think anyone else had pointed it out to him before.

Some thoughts in relation to this are posted here:-

Cantillonblog said...

BTW from experience I can say that if one does this:-

"The alternative is, for someone with experience and expertise, too radical to contemplate - to discard everything he 'knows' and re-explain it in terms of fields.

To give-up and start again! "

it is very difficult to go back and re-integrate the causal chain perspective. Just about possible if you have a less-experienced and younger colleague focus on this aspect of things, and use him to keep an eye on the left-hemisphered world so that every now and then one can go back and see what one might be missing.

Matthew C. said...

I started reading Sheldrake around 1990. His work immediately rang true and I have always wondered why it didn't get more attention and traction.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Matthew C - I think the reason Sh. has not had more impact within science, is that (as I wrote elsewhere) accepting the primacy of morphic fields would mean that most scientists admit that most of what they 'know' (their expertise) is either wrong or at least misleading. It's a case of turkey's not voting for Christmas.