Philosophy,  Physics

Causality ― Outside or Inside?

If you have had a difficult life―like some people around us―you might have asked yourself: Why does it happen to me and not to others? If you are a good person, but have still suffered at the hands of others, you might ask yourself: Do I really control my life? There is a profound problem here, which is not just moral in nature, but also causal: we have grown up thinking that an object A causes changes to object B. We are thus, in this model of causality, victims of our circumstances. This post analyzes some of these issues, and concludes that causality is not outside but inside. That is, even things that we think are being done by others, are actually caused by something within us.

The Classical Notion of Causality in Physics

Even if you have had a modicum of education in science, you would have learnt that a cause is something that effects other things. You push a billiard ball, it collides with another ball, and causes it to move. Physics generalizes this idea, even when there is no apparent ball pushing another ball. For instance, if you are reading this post, then according to physics, there are some photons impinging on your eyes, setting off chemical reactions that carry electrical impulses to the brain, which help you see. Your seeing is therefore enabled by your ability to see, but caused by light hitting your retina.

Every cause in modern physics is a fundamental particle (called a boson) that pushes or pulls another particle (called a fermion) quite like a billiard ball pushes another billiard ball. The difference between modern physics and classical physics is only that the job of pushing or pulling is performed by a different type of particle (the boson) than the particles that constitutes a material object (the fermions). If you look at this causal model, you would think that every cause originates in a different object than the object which is effected by this cause. If you, therefore, extended this idea all the way into our lives, you would think that everything we face is caused by something other than us.

The Problem of Causality in Quantum Theory

In the last 100 years, some changes have occurred in modern physics that are inconsistent with this classical model of causality. Unlike classical physics where objects are generally in a state of motion (and a stationary state is the generalization of the state of motion), in modern physics (specifically quantum theory), objects are in stationary states (and motion cannot be a generalization of this stationary state). Unlike classical physics, where an object is forever in motion unless disturbed by a force, in quantum theory, an object is in a stationary state unless disturbed by a force. This fact is very problematic, because if the entire universe is by default in a stationary state, then what causes motion?

When the default state of a material object is motion, then it can transfer some motion to another object, and change therefore involves a transfer of motion. But if all objects are by default in stationary states, then how can they transfer their motion to another object? The result of the quantum description of nature is that why and how an object in a stationary state causes another stationary state to change cannot be predicted or explained.

The classical model of causality is further undermined in quantum theory by non-local entanglement which violates the classical physical premise of “locality” under which causes propagate at most at the speed of light. Non-locality allows instantaneous propagation of causes, due to which it is impossible to say that the cause precedes the effect. Since the cause and effect are simultaneous, they cannot be strictly demarcated (note that the classical notion of cause and effect relies on temporal precedence).

Two-Way Models of Causality

Quantum problems force a rethink of classical models of causality, and I will try to illustrate that model of causality here based on some everyday examples. When a scientist receives a Nobel Prize for his or her work, there are two distinct models of causality involved. The manifest reason for the prize is the Nobel committee deciding to give the prize to a chosen candidate, but the justification for that choice is based on the work prior done by the scientist. Is the cause of the Nobel Prize the committee that gives away the prize, or the work done by the scientist prior to that prize?

In the classical model of causality, the cause of the prize would be the Nobel committee, because in this model, the prize is a physical transaction, unrelated to the events in the past. In everyday notions about causality, the prize is a reward for the good work done by the scientist. The scientist may have done good work, and may not receive the prize. And there have been some instances of undeserving or underdeserving rewards. The work done by the prize winner therefore neither necessitates the prize, nor does it preclude it. There is hence a clear causal role for the rewarding committee because the receiver’s actions do not absolutely determine the committee’s choices. Nevertheless, we generally like to believe and suppose that the cases when a committee does not reward a deserving candidate, or rewards an underdeserving candidate, are only aberrations. For the most part, only the deserving candidates receive the prize. In such cases, clearly, the determinant of the prize is the work done by the prize winner.

To explain both the common cases and the aberrations, we have to give a causal role for the prize to both the person who receives the prize, and to the committee who decides that Prize. At the moment of the award, the work done by the winner is the justification for the prize, while the decision made by the committee is the reason for the prize.

Reasons vs. Justifications

Classical models of causality only involve reasons. If A is the cause of B, then A is the reason that B happens. Classical causality has no notion of justification, and we cannot say that B deserved to happen. Justifications, in fact, are based on a moral notion of causality, not a physical one. Under this moral notion, good work is rewarded, while bad work is punished. To make just judgments, one must first know what is good and what is  bad. To make the judgment of good and bad, one must first interpret the world semantically—i.e. give it meaning—then evaluate the meaning against some ideal meanings or values before deciding whether something is good or bad. In the classical physical model of causality, it is impossible to give the world meanings, because meanings are always given in relation to other objects, while physical states exist independent of other objects.

The classical model of causality is therefore based on a physical view of the world, devoid of meanings, judgments of good or bad, and the subsequent causality of justification in which good is rewarded and bad is punished. Could it be that the classical model of causality has run its course in science, and the problems of causality in quantum theory are outcomes of a classical oversimplification of everyday causality?

Science and Everyday Causality

The everyday world works on the notion that we have choices, which can be good or bad. Through our choice, we can choose either good or bad, which will then decide the consequences of our choices. Unlike physical notions of causality which only involve a cause and an effect, the everyday notion of causality involves a cause, an effect, and a consequence. The cause is a choice. The effect is the enactment of that choice into some action. And the consequence is the subsequent reward or punishment of that action.

In the above example, the work done by the Nobel recipient involves a choice and an action (cause and effect). Similarly, the work done by the Noble committee also involves a choice and an action (cause and effect). But these two instances of cause-effect are also tied by a judgment of the cause-effect relation (i.e. whether it is good or bad). This judgment is non-local, because the choices of one actor don’t determine the choices of the other actors. The choices of the different actors are in some sense “free” and not determined by the cause-effect relationship, although there is a different kind of relation between choices involving judgments. The issue of a reward cannot be explained based on cause-effect relation, because the reward depends on meaning followed by judgment.

In one sense, the recipient of a reward is the cause of the reward, because it is his or her actions that decide the reward. In another sense, the committee that issues a reward is the cause of the reward, because they make the judgment. At the point of the reward, therefore, there are two causes—both the recipient and the committee.

If our life were treated as a succession of rewards and punishments, by the analogy above, there will always be two causes of everything that we experience: our prior actions, and the current actions of others. In one sense, others are the cause of things that happen to us, because they have caused it. In another sense, we are responsible for everything that happens to us. How do we reconcile these two models of causality, and how will such a reconciliation change our understanding of causality in modern science?

The Theory of Guna and Karma

In Sāńkhya philosophy, there are two causes of an event. First, there are the choices that are converted into actions, and to make a choice one must carry a compass of judgment to decide what to choose. That compass of judgment is called guna, which represents our material personality or “nature”. This is the inside-out model of causality, because the guna cause our actions. Second, the judgment of our choices creates consequences, which produce rewards and punishments, and these are called karma. This is the outside-in model of causality because the karma causes us to reap the consequences of previous actions. The choices we make therefore produce two things: an effect and a consequence. The effect can be seen immediately, but the consequence arrives later.

When someone rewards or punishes us, there are two causes involved. First, the guna of the person who is rewarding or punishing decides their choice and action. Second, the karma of the recipient decides whether such a reward or punishment can be carried out based on the consequences of previous actions. Normally, we see only the actions of the person who is rewarding or punishing, and not the consequences of our previous actions, because we might not remember such actions in the past, or we might not correlate the previous actions to the present reward/punishment, or we just don’t understand the natural law that connects the actions to consequences.

By giving a reward or punishment, the actor is implicated in a consequence, and the recipient is relieved of the consequence of their prior action. Thus, a cycle of actions and consequences is created: we reward or punish the actions of others, which then creates our own rewards or punishments, that would be reaped later. At the point of any event, there is an actor who causes the event, but the recipient is also the cause of that event due to the previously created consequences. Classical models of causality cover the former kind of cause, holding others responsible for what happens to us, but they don’t cover the recipient themselves responsible for what happens to them, because the previously created consequence is not materially observable by the senses.

Synchronization and Temporal Order

The synchronization of the actor and the recipient in any action is called “entanglement” in quantum theory. The source and destination of information are synchronized or entangled before a material transaction occurs, because the causality is two-way and not one-way: both the sender and receiver of information are equally responsible for the transaction. Entanglement entails that the act of sending and receiving are simultaneous.

Nevertheless, since the transaction is always finite (because quanta are never infinitesimal), there is perceived delay between the start and end of the transaction. This perceived delay is incorrectly interpreted as the delay between cause and effect, in order to preserve the classical notions of causality in which the cause is temporally prior to the effect. The fact is that the cause and effect are simultaneous, but because the transaction is finite, it takes time to complete it. The delay between the start and the end of the transaction is a delay on both ends, and not just on one side.

In a sense, there is a sender and receiver of information, although the information never “travels” between the two. There are just two entangled, synchronized, and coordinated objects, and the information disappears at one object and appears at another. This is the non-locality. In the classical model of causality, if A sent information to B, then A will lose the information before B gains it. It is also possible that some C could “intercept” this information while it is in transit. Non-locality precludes both the temporal priority of A sending information, and the possible interception of information by C.

The Nature of Non-Locality

In essence, every transaction has a predefined destination at the origin itself, like a letter that is sent with the address of the destination. However, this letter never travels from the source to the destination, which might subject it to interception by others. Rather, the letter disappears at the source and appears at the destination.

This kind of causal model is impossible to understand in a physical notion of space because we think that two objects are “very far” in space. However, this causality becomes amenable in a new notion of space in which the source and destination are “very close” in space when they are entangled. I have separately discussed how this notion of space is semantic: at the point of interaction, the source and destination are actually semantically very close, although physically they can appear to be very far. Physically, non-locality implies a problem of information traveling at long distances instantaneously. But semantically the notion of distance is itself changed, and the problem disappears.

The semantic understanding of non-locality has new experimental consequences. For example, if information is transferred between A to B without interception, the transfer represents a perfectly secure channel of communication. If information is always transferred only after entanglement, then there can never be redundant information transmitted. Classical channels of communication suffer from problems of security and redundancy, and the modern physical theory of communication was devised to overcome these problems to a limited extent. A purely quantum channel of communication suffers from no such problems: every channel is secure and non-redundant. Information can never be distorted, lost, intercepted, or modified during communication. There is simply no noise in such a channel, because the signal never travels in space.

Lessons of Quantum Theory

Einstein once said that science is the refinement of everyday experience. If in everyday life we hold others responsible for what happens to us, then the refinement of this view of life will lead to the classical model of causality, resulting in the problems of quantum theory. If, however, in our everyday life, we hold ourselves responsible for what happens to us, then the refinement of this view of life would lead to a radically different notion of causality in which source and destination are entangled in causal exchanges.

Science emerges from our understanding of our lives. As our view of life is updated, a new kind of science can emerge. Science is therefore a formalization of our everyday notion about life. If anything, science tells us that this formalization (and by implication our current view of life) is problematic. There are other ways of looking at life, and the material world, which can dissolve these problems. But, to develop that new science, we must first alter our outlooks about the world around us, and our view of our present lives.