Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kinds of causality

This is an essay in the original sense that Montaigne used the word ("essai" meaning an exploratory reflection, not an explanatory claim). Buddhists frequently refer to "causes and conditions" in explaining phenomena in accordance with their core concept of Prattita Samutpada, or "codependent origination" for which the short form is always "This is because that is (and vice versa)." This insight is identical to the Second Dharma Seal, Interbeing: that all phenomena have both causes and consequences, which in turn engender new phenomena.

But when we look a bit more deeply, we can see that there are several different kinds, or levels, of causality. The first is physical causality--that which inheres in the physical world of billiard balls, atoms and molecules, rocks, stars, and galaxies. As Newton and all subsequent physicists have shown, this type of causality can be measured exactly, and therefore predicted and (in theory) controlled. Physical causality is linear: a given cause leads to one or more consequences, which in turn lead to other, ramifying consequences. But at some point, these consequences may feed back into, and alter, their causes.

At this moment, we see a second category of causality, which can be called complex, or cybernetic causality. It is "cybernetic"-- meaning governed or regulated-- ecause such feedback loops can create complex, self-regulating systems, from the simplest (a thermostat or the governor on an engine) to the bewilderingly complex (such as a giant computer).

There are two basic categories of cybernetic systems (and here things become even more complex): teleonomic and teleogenic systems. Everything we have mentioned thus far is a teleonomic system, in that the set point--the value around which the system oscillates at any given moment--is predetermined external to the system itself, by the operator or programmer. A thermostat, for example, sets up a negative, or self-regulatory feedback loop whereby when the temperature exceeds the set point, the heat goes off, whereas when it drops below that set point, the heat comes back on. But the temperature itself is set by the operator--the person affected by the temperature. But even the most complex computer system shares this characteristic with the simple thermostat: it does exactly what we program it to do...no more, no less, even if and when we program it to self-correct its own set points.

Nevertheless, unlike simple, linear causality, cybernetic causality is not always entirely predictable. As anyone who has used computers knows, as the systems become more complex, the possibilities for erratic and unpredictable behavior increase, because the possibilities for errors in programming or misfires in timing of operations increase exponentially with complexity.

This leads us to the third basic category of causality, biological causality, or the causality of teleogenic systems. Biological organisms and other teleogenic systems are fundamentally different from all teleonomic systems--even the most complex imaginable computer--because they are "begotten, not made." That is, they evolve without any externally imposed design. A teleogenic system is thus entirely self-organizing and self-directed. Their only "set point" is the complex variable of their own survival and/or reproduction. There are, in general, only three kinds of teleogenic systems: (1) life; (2) language; and (3) communities or cultures. Each is an open, interactive system which evolved and sets its own goals, seeking above all to perpetuate itself.

So with the evolution of the Physiosphere after the Big Bang, we got simple linear causality; with the evolution of the Biosphere, we got complex teleogenic causality; and with the evolution of human beings and their tool-making capacity, we (finally) got externally directed, teleonomic causality. But the process of evolution--of teleogenic causality--continues. While computers themselves are teleonomic systems, one could argue that the Internet is teleogenic: it has taken on a life of its own, not directed by anyone, and continually evolves to meet the changing needs and demands of its users.

But there is one more kind of causality which is central to Buddhist thought, though it is often dismissed as superstition by westerners. And that is Karmic causality, which evolved with the unique capacity of humans for conscious purpose or moral choice. Other animals do what they must or will, from moment to moment--eating, surviving, and reproducing--so according to Buddhist teachings, the law of Karma does not apply to them at all. But humans, uniquely, have the capacity to act on reflection, as well as impulse--to consider and choose a course of action, after weighing the costs, benefits, and consequences. And Karmic causality kicks in here, for the motive behind any action, as well as its consequences, engender a "Karmic ripple" of that action. And at a deeper level, the aggregate of "Karmic ripples"--the series of causes and consequences created by any deliberately chosen behavior--continue to shape the conditions of our existence beyond even this incarnation; we inevitably reap what we sow, in some form or another, even if the "we" are as yet unborn.

Is this superstition? I do not believe it is. It is just causality at a subtler level--that of volition, attitude, and conscious purpose--than any we have yet acknowledged here in the west. It is predicated on the radical Buddhist idea of nonself--another word for interbeing: the idea that the sense we all have of our own individuality and separateness from the rest of the world--the notion of a separate, isolated self--is in itself an illusion. As John Lennon once put it, "I am he as you are (s)he and you are me and we are all together."

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