Absurd deception

    Fake causality is a psychological device which is sometimes used in hypnosis and suggestion therapy. It makes the subject more inclined to accept certain suggestions, e.g. "your arm is now becoming heavy and immobile". It can at times be difficult for the subject to see why his arm should suddenly become heavy and immobile. But if the therapist begins by saying that "you feel the blood flowing through your arm" and then declares that this will "cause" the arm to become heavy, then the suggestion is accepted without question.

    This particular "causality" is of course utterly absurd -- both the subject and the therapist know perfectly well that the blood circulates through the arm at all times, even when the arm doesn’t feel heavy. The circulating blood can not possibly be the "cause" of the heavy arm. But the interesting part is that this seemingly simple-minded deception actually works. On the other hand, it works best when the subject is already in a somewhat suggestible ("hypnotic") state, i.e. when the emotional self of the subject has begun to dominate over his rational self.

The fake illuminates the genuine

    How fake causality works may shed some psychological light on the concept of causality in general. Because, as we remember from philosophy, our naïve ideas of the character of a "cause" (like in "everything has a cause") are somewhat problematic. What we ordinarily mean when we say that C is the cause of an effect E, is that (1) C precedes E, and that (2) there is an absolutely necessary connection between the cause and the effect.

    However, David Hume was the first to point out that well, yes, it is easy to see whether C precedes E or not. But there is no way of (empirically) checking whether the connection between C and E is a necessity or not. Causality is consequently nothing more than a simple relation between ideas. According to Hume it "arises entirely from experience, when we find that any particular objects are constantly conjoined with each other".

    As ordinary non-philosophical individuals we are appalled by this analysis. Because this is a long shot from the vibrant inner certainty that we experience when we express our well-founded conviction that "C is the cause of E".

    Enter Immanuel Kant, a mild-mannered East Prussian from Königsberg. Half a century after David Hume, Kant explained causality in a novel, profoundly innovative way. The essence of his (still up-to-date) idea is easier to grasp if we screen it through today's language of biology and psychology.

A momentous innovation

    What Kant means is that our perception of a "cause-and-effect" situation is not a property of the real world at all. The Human Animal is an Animal, and she can never see the Real World. Rather, the Human Animal seems to have certain built-in biological thinking features, or programs. These built-in perception programs are the ones that organise our sense impressions. Among other things, they make us see our perceived reality in accordance with "cause-and-effect" schemes. The causal schemes may be unreal, but they appear to be useful for our survival.

    Kant, who published his theory in Kritik der reinen Vernunft in 1781, would certainly not have expressed himself in this way. Nor would he have asked himself what evolutionary advantage this feature in our biological set-up may have had. Serious biology, evolution, and genetics were still almost a century away, not to speak of DNA. So to say that Kant was innovative, is putting it mildly.

Cause for calm

    Why does an obviously illogical device like fake causality work? True, it works best when our logic is at rest and our emotions have taken over. But this also indicates that the very idea of causality is much more an emotional than a logical matter. We seem to be emotionally geared to long for causal explanations, regardless of their logic, or lack of logic.

    The phenomenon of fake causality, together with Immanuel Kant’s innovation, can make us understand a great many things in our thinking, our perceptions and -- most importantly -- our emotions. We appear to have an intense longing for causal explanations. Thunderstorms have always been dangerous, causing serious anxiety and panic among the ancients. Thunderstorms are as dangerous as ever, but modern causal explanations ("it is due to electrical discharges in the atmosphere") has made our anxiety go away. Most of us don’t even understand the meteorology of "atmospheric discharges". But the comforting feeling that emanates from the fact that we are in possession of a causal explanation is sufficient for us to stay reasonably calm during the next thunderstorm.

It’s pointless, so I’m happy

    An interesting demonstration of the emotional power of causal explanations can be found in a nice writeup on this site. That an anxious existential "Why?" can be answered by a comforting supernatural Causal Power, is a commonplace observation. But the author of this article goes much deeper.

    First he establishes that human existence is totally pointless. Because if humans would suddenly disappear from the face of the Earth, nothing of real importance would change in the ongoing life of the planet. Human life, according to this author, is as pointless as that of a machine whose only purpose is dripping water on the floor and then automatically mopping it up. Drip, mop, drip, mop, drip, mop -- forever. Some people would probably find this analysis bleak enough for committing suicide.

    But the author’s reaction is quite the opposite. Once he has found an explanation, a causality, he suddenly discovers that he is happier than ever. His insomnia disappears, he feels free of the burdens of life and feels enlightened.

    So it is the very existence of a causal connection that seems to be the source of happiness, not the subject-matter it concerns. This emotional phenomenon is easily recognizable from the religious and ideological fields, but here it occurs in a confession-free, unadulterated form. Explanations always make us happy, regardless of what they explain.

Be prepared

    Are there any lessons to be learnt from fake causality, and the perspective it gives us on causality in general? Probably that we should always be on our guard whenever we meet with a pleasing causal explanation. Because causality plays on our emotions to a much higher degree than we ever suspected.


David Hume: Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Immanuel Kant: Kritik der reinen Vernunft
Everything2.com: The purpose of life, by WhiteZombie
Any handbook of hypnosis and/or suggestion therapy

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.