by Michelle DiNapoli, who is an extraordinary student at Southwestern College, Santa Fe.
She questions pretty much everything.
I see in our culture’s understanding of the world not only an obsession with causality but also a strong belief in “root” causes of phenomena. While I feel cause-and-effect thinking is useful and practical for the times when we are intending to make simple, surface-level statements (such as, “the cup fell because I knocked it over”), I want to question its usefulness in the context of our more complex undertakings. Causal thinking is the foundation of modern science, and it is ever-present in the fields of Psychology and Psychopathology. For instance, we establish that the “influences” from a client’s life, experiences, genetics, temperament, and so on combined to “cause” his or her depression. Or we might decide the root cause of a person’s problem is an emotional blockage, or is karmic, or is neurological, or is due to an inability to regulate his or her nervous system (depending on whatever your particular orientation or paradigm is.) I want to challenge our (usually automatic and unquestioned) use of the perspective of causality, as I have qualms about its ultimate usefulness and validity.
I think that what we fail to recognize- but is crucial for us to understand if we want to honestly study human behavior- is that it is only by virtue of our language that phenomena could be “caused,” so to speak, by other phenomena… because it is our language that separates/dissects the world into separate phenomena and events to begin with. To give an example of what I mean, I want to reference an example from Alan Watts (from Time, 1975). He presented a hypothetical situation in which he had never seen a snake before and had no concept for what a “snake” was. If a snake were to slither by him underneath a fence, he would first see the snake’s head and then eventually its tail. If the snake then passed by him in the other direction, he would again see its head first and then eventually its tail. Now if he were to label the head and the tail separate events, he would be inclined to say that the head caused the tail; He would say that the head is the cause, and the tail is the effect.
We can see that this type of thinking is ridiculous, because the head and the tail are not actually separate events (and the entire snake was born from an egg with both a head and a tail.) But because he labeled them separate, the notion of causality seemed relevant. In actuality what was happening was that he opted to categorize his experience into separate events and to then reason about his “separate” experiences with the logic of causality, forgetting that there were no truly separate events. I want to share one more example that sheds light on this type of thinking- this one from Jim Nolan (via a comment he wrote on my paper): “Does Track 1 on this CD cause Track 2? Of course; Every time I test it, Track 1 is invariably followed by Track 2. Duh…” The logic, thus, says that what preceded an event caused the event. And though this logic might look ridiculous to us in these examples, we use exactly that same logic all the time to explain why a person has a mental illness.
When we attempt to answer why someone is bipolar or anxious or borderline, for instance, we give explanations and descriptions of circumstances and influences that led up to the appearance of the symptoms. We call attention to the person’s genetics and his chaotic home life, for instance. We say “it was a combination of forces- his biology, his upbringing and events that occurred to him in his lifetime. It was stress. It was his beliefs, his faulty thought patterns, his choices, etc. ” And what we are really saying when we say something like this is: “the humanly observable circumstances leading up to the phenomenon are the causes of the phenomenon. These circumstances are why the individual is the way he is.” I want to suggest that this is shortsightedness as well as subpar psychology. It is a perspective that says the “root causes” of phenomena are what we can perceive or what we can measure, even though we know that, as humans, we have limited senses and limited working knowledge of the world.
So the two points I want to stress are, firstly, that phenomena are not separate in reality, only in our experience. This means that when we talk about something causing something else, we would be wise to recognize that our statement is only valid within the matrix of our own language; Our statement is not descriptive of reality. And secondly, our scope of perception as humans is limited. (Even taking into account all of our technologies and ways of measuring different things, we are still extraordinarily limited.) When trying to look for “causes,” then, I think we should recognize that we often can’t know what they are- if any- because we might not even be able to perceive them. I truly don’t think we can accurately identify “causes” based on what we, as humans, see or measure or think we know.
I think that if we are going to operate within the framework of our language and its ideas of causality, then we should do so knowing that causality only makes sense insofar as language is concerned. I think this calls for distinguishing between what is true of my experience, for me and what is “true” in reality or outside of my experience. (The former I believe we give words to, the latter I do not.) Let me explain using Jim’s example about the tracks on a CD. Track 1 could be said to be the “cause” of track 2 in my experience. (And I think this would be a completely valid statement. Since I can’t experience track 2 without first experiencing or skipping track 1, I can call track 1 a legitimate cause in my experience.) In reality this statement of causality would not be true. (Not that it is specifically true or specifically not true- it’s just that words can only speak to our experiences, since words separate reality into separate phenomenon for the sake of our talking and communicating. In reality there is no separation.) I think truth is that which cannot be spoken, and that is why I don’t believe we could give words to the so-called reality of “what caused track 2” or of any other phenomenon. (I don’t think there even is a reality of “track 2 happening.”) And let me just clarify the different between “truth” and “fact.” What we call facts are agreed upon, consensual “truths,” which are language-bound (such as 1+1=2.) These are also only valid in our experiences. Truth, again, is that which cannot be spoken. And truth does not require any agreement or consensus to be truth.
I want to also look at the way we sometimes apply causality, specifically in the context of psychopathology, by just briefly addressing the idea of “psychological disorders” being “caused” (or even heavily influenced) by a person’s neurology or neurochemistry. It is no more likely that a person’s neural activity is the “cause” of their “disorder” than it is a “symptom.” (And to say this in non-pathologizing language: It is no more likely that a person’s neural activity is the “cause” of their behavioral/cognitive/emotional patterns than it is a reflection or expression of those patterns.) To assume neurochemistry is the cause, I think, is not unlike saying that my cough caused my cold. Of course a person who fits a diagnosis for Schizophrenia or depression is going to have different neural activity than a person who wouldn’t fit such diagnoses. But to say that the brain activity/chemistry caused the patterns that those people exhibit is poor science. Could brain activity/chemistry not be a reflection of some kind? Why do we think that it has a life of its own, separate from us? Why do we think that our neurochemistry dictates everything about us? Why don’t we consider that our neurology might be merely one of many expressions of our state of being? Why do we have to view it as having control? I see our obsession with linear, cause-and-effect thinking (combined with our loyalty to the medical model) associated with this strict adherence to the neurochemistry-as-root-cause of psychopathology belief.
How could we look at the phenomenon of “disordered” patterns differently? How could we step outside of the paradigm of causality? In our current paradigm, we seek “objective” knowledge by isolating variables and looking for causes & effects. Where we don’t have explanations, we create them according to what seems to make sense to us, based on how we think the world works. We’re not big on embracing mystery, to say it lightly. I think an important first step for us would be to become more conscious and aware of how our language paints a picture of reality that may not be as “objectively true” as we may have once thought. If we become puzzled over “how” or “why” something “happens,” we can know that we are puzzled only within the matrix of our own language (and that perhaps we need only adjust our perspective and/or our language to reach understanding.) If we just can’t make sense of something, maybe we could take that as a sign that we are not looking through the most appropriate lens possible or that we might need to shift the language of our question(s). And I feel it is important for us to keep perspective on the notion that our answers are never “the truth” (i.e., universally valid or “objectively” true.)
And lastly, I feel that there is a part of us that doesn’t need (or even want) explanations and answers, as it is fundamentally one with the Mystery, the infinite, the Truth, ‘that which cannot be spoken.’ Perhaps releasing our attachment to explanations, answers, and root causes might help us to connect to that deeper wisdom within. And perhaps our connection to that deeper, beyond-words wisdom within us could feed us in such a way that our language-bound truths become sourced from our own authenticity, rather than from our culture’s narrow cause-and-effect thinking.