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Explanation or Causation

David Cowles

Mar 21, 2024

“We like to think ‘that could never happen to me’, but we can only think that if we know how it happened to someone else.”

On February 9, 2024, an online column by Nate Cohn, New York Times, included an interesting analysis of recent presidential elections:

“Almost every election features something unprecedented, with the potential to shake up the usual patterns of politics. In the last four cycles alone, we’ve witnessed the first Black presidential major-party nominee, the first female such nominee, the first without military or elected experience, the first modern election amid a pandemic, and so on. 

“In all of these cases, pundits and analysts speculated — very reasonably — about whether these novel candidates or circumstances might yield an unexpected result. But in the end, those extraordinary circumstances didn’t yield extraordinary election results. The final numbers looked about as you might have expected…” 

Oh really? 

2008: A one term African-American senator from Illinois with considerable political baggage successfully challenges a former first lady and sitting senator from New York for their party’s nomination; he then goes on to defeat a war hero and ‘national treasure’, to become the first black president in U.S. history.

By election day, Barack Obama’s win was expected…but his margin wasn’t. He carried some recent Republican strongholds like Indiana, Ohio, Iowa and Florida. 

2016: A controversial business tycoon with zero political experience trounces a ‘Who’s Who’ field of GOP primary opponents. Three weeks before the general election a damning recording of the nominee making sexist comments surfaced. GOP leaders seriously considered changing nominees with less than a month to go before election day. 

On election eve, few expected Donald Trump to win. 

2020: A sitting president is challenged by a former vice-president and ‘perennially unsuccessful’ presidential candidate. The race is complicated by social and economic chaos brought on by Covid-19 and by new electoral rules and procedures intended to mitigate the effects of that pandemic on voter turnout. Donald Trump received more popular votes than any presidential candidate in U.S. history…and lost.

No doubt, there are folks who can demonstrate that they ‘called’ all three races correctly, picking the ultimate winner in each, his (sic) electoral path, and the approximate final margin, well in advance. Does that make these people smart…or just lucky?

Of all the monkeys in all the world, only one correctly typed out a Shakespearean Sonnet. Does that make that monkey smarter than her cousins? 

You’ve heard it said, “Hindsight is 20/20”. Of course it is! Given an event, any event, it is human nature to look for causes. If something has causes, it’s less horrible, less terrifying than if it just happened out of the blue. It’s no surprise then that gratuitous horror is the life blood of the film industry!

We like to think ‘that could never happen to me’, but we can only think that if we know how it happened to someone else. The ‘causal fiction’ reinforces our ‘illusion of control’. As long as something has a cause, we imagine we may be able to avoid it in the future. How can we avoid what we can’t predict and how can we predict what we can’t explain?

When I was in school, it was commonplace to ask students to write essays explicating ‘the causes of the US Civil War’. I always suspected that grades were directly proportional to the length of the responses, but in retrospect I see that they should have been inversely proportional. Only three answers merit a passing grade…and they’re all quite short:

Everything caused the War.

Nothing caused the War.

The War caused itself.

This last response could assume one of several acceptable disguises:

The War was caused by South Carolina’s secession from the Union.

The War was caused by the formation of the Confederate States of America.

The War was caused by South Carolina’s attack on Fort Sumpter.

Anything that goes beyond any one of these responses is just so much verbal diarrhea. The Civil War was caused by everything that went before it…or it was not caused by anything that went before it…or it caused itself (causa sui). Pick one!

It doesn’t matter which; the answers are really all the same answer. To say that everything causes X is to say that nothing causes X, which is to say that either X has no cause or X is its own cause. The selected response tells us absolutely nothing about the Civil War, but it speaks volumes about our idea of causality. 

The notion of causation is central to our ontology. We imagine that we live in a world constituted by a bevy of causal threads. But a pile of string does not a fabric make. If causal chains are functionally independent of one another, how is it that there is a ‘world’ at all? Fabric first! We abstract threads (our causal chains) from whole cloth.

Only in retrospect do we have the hubris to imagine that an event might be the product of a single causal chain. Why should any event be allowed to designate a unique sequence of prior events, ‘forsaking all others’, as its cause? Our causality fetish is symmetry breaking. It divides what-is into this and that. But with what justification? 

Ontology is inherently conservative. It answers to a ‘dual mandate’: infuse the world with beauty, truth, and justice while conserving what-is in so far as what-is participates in the Good. After all, what-is is the product of events seeking to infuse value into the world. Why throw that away?

This then is the creative advance; it surfs along the wave front that is the optimal balance of novelty and tradition. But novelty is not caused…and so it cannot be explained. That’s why we call it ‘novelty’! 

Nate Cohn notwithstanding, the 2024 election results will be no harder, or easier, to explain than any other presidential election.


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