Ch1 L29: Beliefs – part V (cause vs. reason)

  1. In the 8th post, we studied how the brain could create supersigns [1] connecting two or more signs based on the law I called the law of adjacency [2]: If two or more things are spatially, temporally or conceptually [3] adjacent, they will be connected in our mind.
  2. We also saw that the brain connected the sign of a flower to its smell to create a supersign. Then the frequency [4] of the experience would consolidate it in your mind up to the point that you generalize [5] and make it a belief [6]: the rose has this kind of smell.
  3. Now it’s time to discuss the most important type of relationship between two or several things. If a thing can’t exist without one or more things, the relationship is causal.
  4. To create the concept of causality two generalizations must take place: Firstly, your brain needs to find causality in one supersign. For example, you observe that whenever it’s raining, the sky is cloudy. So, your brain will generalize that clouds generate rain. Secondly, experiencing several cause-effect systems, you will generalize that everything is caused by something. So, instead of connecting the things with hyphens, as we did in the 8th post, we use an arrow to indicate cause and effect. Could ⇒ rain.
  5. The discovery of causality opens the can of worms. Because “everything is caused by something” implies that something must’ve caused clouds. Then if we find the cause for clouds, we’ll be curious to find out what had caused, say, the sun or water. As you see, we’ll get stuck in a causal chain [7] which can indefinitely extend. 
  6. Another problem created by causality is the concept of reason. To study reason let’s take a look at the Aristotelian categories of causes [8]. Aristotle [9] stated that for every effect, there are four causes. Take a dining table as an example:
    1. It requires wood or any other materials to exist. Aristotle called it the material cause.
    2. The table must have a form or design which is the formal cause.
    3. A carpenter must build it (the agent cause)
    4. Finally there must be a reason for the existence of the table: dining. (The final or ultimate cause)
  7. It makes sense, doesn’t it? But this is just an example and it can’t prove its truth. It’s very important for the foundation of thinking to know that examples can’t be used as proof because they can be guided. I see this problem when I ask my students to prove a theorem, say, Pythagorean theorem. They draw a right-angled triangle whose sides are 3, 4 and 5 and they think that they proved it. Then I need to explain that you showed that it worked in an example but you haven’t proven it yet [10].
  8. The problem with the example is we replace the statement “Everything has a cause” with “Everything has a reason”. We might synonymously use cause and reason but according to Aristotle the reason is the ultimate cause or the intention; thus it is limited to the planned effects.
  9. As a counterexample [11] to show that everything might not have a reason, in a car accident, there was at least a cause (e.g. a driver was drunk, sleepy, playing with their phone, a car had a glitch, etc.) but there’d be no reason for it unless the car accident had been planned to kill someone. 
  10. Besides, we also interchangeably use “how” and “why” in many cases. How asks about causes but why inquire the reason. When you’re asking how a thing or system works, the instruction or explanation clarifies the causal chain to get to the result (effect). You start with why about the same thing and the answer would be the intention or plan behind it.
  11. For example, we know the answer to the question “How does an earthquake happen?” but we can’t find the answer to “why does it occur?”
  12. You might think that this meticulousness is unnecessary, but I’ve noticed that if you ask a student “how didn’t you get a good grade?” or “how did it happen?”, the outcome is different than starting the question with why. Asking with why implies that there was something intentional or fundamentally wrong with you and leads the student’s mind to a conclusion such as ‘I’m not good at math’. However, if we ask the same question with how, then they wouldn’t take it personally and they would explain that, say, ‘they hadn’t studied well’, ‘they couldn’t understand the topic’, etc.; so, they’d come up with a solution to improve their grade.
  13. In the next post, we’ll discuss what happened that the humankind started to seek reasons.

Exercise 29:

  1. Think about superstitions and imagine the situations in which they could’ve been created. 
  2. Why do we look for reasons?


[1] I came up with the idea of supersign to explain how the brain thinks. It simply refers to a group of signs connected to each other. Link to the 8th post

[2] In order to connect the signs again I thought how the brain could find a relationship between them and the rule must have a very simple base. Because the brain works based on some electrochemical process and it must be something it could handle. Then I realized that our brain by default links two adjacent things. For example, when you see a honey bee on a flower, you conclude that there must be a relationship between them. How does it happen if it’s the first time you see them and you have no other information to back it up? There must be a built-in mechanism to connect them and that’s what I called the law of adjacency. Again you can find the discussion about it in the 8th post. Link

[3] The conceptual adjacency is the similarity. If two things have more similarity, they’re relatively more adjacent in the brain. For example, squares are more adjacent to rectangles than to circles. The way we organize a system also shows that we place more similar things (in terms of being, function, etc.) close to each other.

[4] We talked about the impact of frequency on our decisions in several posts, starting from the 18th post. Link

[5] You can find the discussion about generalization in the following link

[6] We started to explore beliefs in the 25th post. Link

[7] Link to the wiki page about causal chain

[8] Link to the wiki page about Four Causes

[9] Link to the wiki page about Aristotle

[10] As you see, there are many problems with students’ learning and I could say many students aren’t taught how to learn. 

[11] Link to the previous post about counterexamples


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