Saturday 5 January 2013

What causes what?

Deciding that something causes something else is not easy. Just look at big current puzzlements about what causes global warming, Alzheimer’s, or youth unemployment, to see what I mean.

Part of the problem seems to be that we like to settle for straightforward answers to questions about causality: things like coffee keeps you awake, or exercise makes you lose weight, have become accepted truths. But complex concepts, of which we lack understanding, such as those we designate by the simple labels global warming, Alzheimer’s and youth unemployment cannot be attributed to simple causes. Conversely, in fact, what do we mean by coffee, or exercise – or multilingualism –, that can have this or that effect, and on whom?

Another part of the problem is that in order to establish that some X causes some Y, we need to make sure that X correlates with Y at all, as I’ve discussed before, and make double sure that we’re not mistaking correlations between X and Y for causality relationships between them. Deciding what correlates with what is not easy either, for two main reasons. First, because correlations between observables do not exist as correlations: we make them. David Hume had this to say about “connexions”, in a section titled ‘Of miracles’ of his 1748 book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

“It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another, are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction; it is evident, that we ought not to make an exception to this maxim in favour of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other.”

Second, because we do not experience first-hand most of the correlations we come to make: we inherit them. The cultural expectations which nurture us, from the day that nurturing starts taking effect on us, shape our ways of thinking about things. We “know” that things are as they are because others, before us, “knew” that they are so, and told us that they are so. Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger put it aptly, in their book Jews and Words: “Your ideas are not your ideas. They are the progeny of the bookshelf on your wall and of the language that you inhabit.” (Thank you for the tip, Judy!) I’ll leave the matter of our thinking in languages for some other day.

An additional, crucial part of the problem is that once we settle for whatever answers appeal to us, we stop asking questions. We stop thinking. Our expectations shape the range of the questions that we feel entitled (or are allowed) to ask. Ready-made answers to the questions that we do (not) ask, in turn, make up the theories to which we hold as explanation for our observations. We do not only rest happily with that “knowledge”, but propagate it, too, as it was propagated to us. This is why it takes such a long time, and such a lot of work, to dismiss urban myths: once we satisfy ourselves that a question is answered, we close the door to it, forgetting that we are the ones closing it.

Not seeking answers beyond “the” answer is what leads to superstition: some of us stopped asking why it should make sense to remove, as it were, 4th or 13th floors from high-rises in order to avoid the negative karma caused, as it were, by these numbers. We stopped thinking that high-rises still have 4th or 13th floors, whatever we choose to call them, and that negative karma is negative only because we trained ourselves to ignore any positive correlations, or any absence of correlations, that these numbers may have. Knowledge (without scare quotes) builds on something else altogether: some of us get hit on the head by a rotting apple falling from a tree and, instead of blaming our karma, wonder about what may have made the apple fall.

There are solid causality relationships that we can safely rely on – at least until new questions displace old answers. For example, that polio vaccination successfully causes the poliovirus to lose its virulence. But I think it’s always good to keep questioning what we think we know about solid and less solid causes and effects. Do we really know that multilingualism “causes” this and that, for example? And can it make sense that the “effects” of multilingualism turn out to be both negative and positive? Or do we keep asking the wrong questions? I find it quite interesting to try to understand what causes such beliefs to endure.

Next time, I’ll return to another popular example of simple causality, which is as entrenched as it is misguided: the one holding that ageing causes language learning abilities to decay.

© MCF 2013

Next post: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Wednesday 16th January 2013.


  1. I would rather read a text on the inhibitory effect of multilingualism on neurodegeneration, if I may ask humbly.

    And this is the kind of articles, I'd like to start my weekends with. :)

  2. You certainly may, Agnieszka! That’s what this blog is here for, particularly concerning highly controversial topics such as the one you ask about: multilingualism and neurodegeneration is one of those apparently “simple” correlations that I mention in the blog post.

    But I’m a firm believer in what is sometimes called Environmental Enrichment (EE), in the literature, as assisting brain well-being. Anything that stimulates your brain regularly will keep it in good functioning order. Just like what regular physical activity does to your body? See e.g. Potential benefits and limitations of enriched environments and cognitive activity on age-related behavioural decline, also this other post of mine, Brains and fears, and the comments to it.

    In case you meant ‘text’ in the sense of textbook, I don’t know of book-length treatments of multilingualism as inhibitor of neurodegeneration – can anyone out there help?

    These articles/chapters may be of interest to you, as a sample of disparate findings about your topic:

    - Ellen Bialystok and colleagues have done extensive research on this topic, comparing multilinguals to monolinguals, e.g. Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control: Evidence from the Simon Task, and Bilingualism: The good, the bad, and the indifferent.

    - More recently, from Shanna Kousaie and Natalie A. Phillips, Ageing and bilingualism: Absence of a “bilingual advantage” in Stroop interference in a nonimmigrant sample.

    Thank you for letting me know that I was able to contribute something to your weekend!


  3. I love the thoughtful nature of your posts. I am daily attempting to become more aware of what I expect, and ask "why?", and try to understand the expectations of others - which is not an easy task in a multicultural context.

  4. “Why” is my favourite question, too. I think it helps us understand a lot about others and perhaps even more about ourselves. Thank you for your kind words, Joyau!



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