On causality as the defining principle of all knowledge and on the subjective nature of all knowledge

The notion of time is very tightly bound with the way that we perceive the world. Knowledge is accumulated through time and it mostly presuposes the notion of time. And perceptions compose time - they are the material from which time is made.

In order to understand knowledge, we must understand time. But it is also the other way around. This is why this text does not have a very precise structure - it just not possible to describe paradoxes in a precise manner.

The lack or precision has always been off-putting for many people - why devote our ahem time to try to understand time when the subject is so hard and the results, so meagre? Because it’s important.

So let’s start with something that is easy.

0 We can view the input which our brain receives and from which the perception of time and continuity is derived as a collection of frames, pictures of different states of reality which are, somehow, united.

I’d define knowledge as all information that we can use to predict the future. Not all information is knowledge.

1 In order for the perception of time to be realised, the list of frames must be interpreted as signifying some sort of change of object from one state to another, like change of position (motion), change of shape, color etc.

To perceive change, then, we must be able to interpret the frames in such a way that there is an aspect of them which is different for each frame but at the same time stays the same for all of them i.e. we have to postulate the identity of objects and events.

2 The basic form of identity of events and objects (objects being just collections of events) is based on the concept of causality - when observing event A in a given frame followed by another event B at another frame, we presume that A ⇒ B (B is caused by A).**

What this means is that identity is a manifestation of causality, that they are the same thing - when I see a given object standing on my desk and then I see a similar object in the next moment I assume that it is probably the same object i.e. the object being there at time X causes it to be there at time x + 1. There are other ways for defining identity (technically, for example, an object is the same only if it contains the same atoms), but this is the main way it is perceived by people, hence the old parable about a ship that has all it’s parts changed at a course of a given period is still the same ship it was at the beginning of the said period, although different in terms of the material that it is composed from.

  1. Causality is in the eye of the beholder i.e. A ⇒ B is not a fact about the world, but a mental construct. This is so, because B is party defined by its internal characteristics but it is also party defined as just “the thing that comes after A” (if B just happens without any sign of A before it, to what extend would it still be B?). In the same way, A is partly defined as the thing that comes after some other event.

Let’s imagine that we know that A ⇒ B and we observe A and then observe another event B' which resembles B in terms of some of its internal characteristics, but is also different in some other characteristics (note that this is not a mere thought experiment, as all events are different from one another).

In this case we have two choices:

The first kind of thinking is called empirical, the second one - dogmatic. Only when thinking empirically, do we obtain information about the world. Only when thinking dogmatically are we able to use the information that we gained by making predictions. Needless to say, empirical and dogmatic thinking go hand in hand. They are like inputs and outputs, Like questions and answers, like beginnings and endings.

From the previous chapter we saw that dogmas like A ⇒ B are not truths, they are just rules for structuring information. Sometimes we naively sometimes think of them as true when they mostly “work” i.e. allow us to achieve a given goal or false, but the fact is that they are not - instances that follow a given rule may only follow it by accident, or because we perceive them as following it. Instances that don’t follow the rule are simply not instances of that rule - no rule is right or wrong.

Natively we may think of causality and of A ⇒ B as true, because when we perceive A, then (in the most cases) we also perceive B and it is easier to explain that by postulating causality than to just say it happens by accident (Occam’s razor). This may lead us to believe that causality is some kind of law that exist in the world, or rather a meta-law, which implies the existence of all kinds of other laws. In this case, we would be overlooking the following:

B is not a specific state of affairs, it is just a mental image, a pattern we begin to search for given our previous knowledge of A ⇒ B.

We search for B and often do find it even without there being perfect candidates - If we already think that A ⇒ B we will see B everywhere we see A. In this case we say that someone sees B even when it is not really there”, but the fact of the matter is we cannot possibly see anything that is there in the way that we see B in this example. According to this line of thought, that causality is not a rule, nor a meta rule, but a belief and one that every thinking being should hold to some extend.


The last statement probably sounds too counter-intuitive, so to be taken as true without some objections. I will attempt to address some of them in the following philosophical dialogue between the physicist Isaac Newton and the philosopher David Hume.

Hume: Causality is not a quality of the world, but merely a belief. It’s a very general belief and one that every thinking being should hold to some extend in order to be a thinking being at all, but still it is just a belief.

Newton: That is nonsence! You can clearly see that the world adheres to certain laws which are unrelated to whether you are watching at all. Causality is a characteristic of the world in itself! A rule! A law!

Hume: But if causality were a law, there ought to be a way to test it, as we do with all other laws.

Newton: Yes and as a matter of fact we do that pretty often - for example, all scientific theories are based on causality - usually a theory assumes that some statement that has the form A ⇒ B is true and tries to test it by creating A many times and seeing if B follows i.e. every science experiment that tests whether a given theory works also tests whether causality itself works.

Hume: True, but many if not most science experiment fail to some extend or another. Does that allow us to conclude that causality also only works sometimes?

Newton: The only reason that experiments fail is that we simply don’t know enough to conduct them properly. Blaming causality for our failure is just ridiculous. If our theory is right, it will produce the expected outcome every single time.

Hume: OK, let’s take an example then. If you are able to construct a thought experiment that would always works, even a very elementary one, then you would win.

Newton: Very well then. I suggest the following experiment which uses everyday logic and objects: a pistol is turned to a window. The pistol’s trigger is pressed, therefore the window is be broken.

Hume: (smiling) But what if there is no bullet in the pistol?

Newton: OK, let’s make it a loaded pistol.

Hume: But what if the pistol is broken in some way?

Newton: OK, let’s say that a bullet should necessarily be fired and that the aim isn’t off. Then the glass gets broken.

Hume: Can there be a whole in the glass?

Newton: No there can’t be. The bullet hits the damn glass, OK?

Hume: OK, and how far is the glass.

Newton: Let’s just say that the bullet hits it with sufficient speed.

Hume: Sufficient for what? What you did now was to define the situation in such a way that the effect is embedded in the setup.

Newton: So you are saying that the effect can be embedded in the setup? Well, that sounds quite objective, does not really look like a belief to me.

Hume: Look, there may be possible cases where you will be able to guess whether the glass gets broken, but this does not make the general principle true. Because there is no general principle, in a first place, only a mental image and situations which remind you of the mental image.

On using abstraction for affirming the universal character of knowledge and on the concept of determinism as the default worldview

Reality is like a canvas that contains the form of the world. But it is up to the observer, to us, to draw the contours - we circle one spot and say “This is A”. Then we take another picture and search for where A went. Or if there are any other instances of A. Therefore A is a mental image.

  1. A mental image (or dogma, as we called it earlier) is a set of many impressions united in order to be perceived as one.

And while (as we said) mental images themselves do not say anything about the real world, the fact that we have gotten the habbit of creating mental images says a lot - their existence is a proof that the world is not completely random.

  1. Mental images would only make sense only in a non-random world - in a world that is completely random there will be no point nor reason to unite several things and unite them as one.

But the non-randomness of the world does not, by itself, impose any structure to us, or even the need for such structure. It merely makes it possible for it to be interpreted.

The behaviour of rudimentary organisms that have no brain or have a very rudimentary brain can be described by the the stimulus-response model - they perceive an object and react on it immediately.

The most rudimentary types of memories are just associations between stimulus and a given reaction, e.g. seeing a predator to running away. Such memories do not require for an organism to have concepts of time and causality in order to exist, because they:

Probably the next stage of the development of the concept of time was the desire to predicting the future. Indeed, this desire is probably prior to the concept of future itself as having a concept of the future as such makes sense only if you are able to predict what that future might be.

But predicting the future requires more than just taking stale pictures of things and storing what you need to do in case a similar situation arises. It requires you to model the whole world. This is what the concept of causality does and this is why it exists - to bring everything that we see to our own terms.

  1. The concentration on different aspects of reality and the usage of different sets of mental images leads to widely different interpretaions of reality.
  1. A goal is a mental image representing state a of affairs which is for some reason desirable for an individual.
  1. All mental images that a given individual has, are, for them, either desirable or the opposite - undesirable - we cannot have a mental image that we don’t relate to with either positive or negative feelings. So all mental images are trivially associated with, or are themselves goals (or anti-goals).

The only way to compare mental images is by their utility as means of achieving different types of goals. And comparing the mental images is a converged way of comparing the goals to which they stand.

  1. Mental images are abstractions, they can be used without a loss of precision only when you can keep in mind what are they and from what are they produced from.
  1. Mental images have the power to reinforce themselves with time - having the image of A ⇒ B in our head, we would see A-s and B-s all over the place. Even when we search for a new image, we will search for it only in the space which is not occupied by A-s and B-s so the new image would be supplementary to A-s and B-s, like a jigsaw puzzle.

On the concept of the self, the human’s desire for control and the enforcement of deterministic subsystems. Mental images and goals which are mistaken for the actual world.

Sometimes when we perceive new things that we did not expect we adjust out thinking so as to take them into account. But if there is no way to adjust our thinking we just ignore the things that don’t fit into our causal chain, as if they do not exist. If there is an event (or even a whole aspect of reality) that does not uphold to causal laws, we would not be merely unable to make sense of that event or aspect (as seeing an event without being able to make sense of it would indicate that we can comprehend it it by merely adjusting our thinking), we would not be able perceive the it in any way, even if it happens before our very eyes.

By the same token, a world that does not adhere to laws is impossible to be modelled. Such world does not offer any means for us to be able to predict the outcome of our actions. Therefore, in such a world we would not be able to use mental images, because there would be no way for them to exist at all.

Assuming that the world is not lawful is simply a dead-end in terms of our thinking. This is why we mostly assume otherwise.

When applied to large-scale thinking, this asumption establishes determinism as the “default” worldview and makes us cautious when facing non-deterministinc phenomema (which we often try to contain them in a system which is inherently deterministic).

In deterministic systems, non-deterministic events can be explained by “hidden variables” theories. Basically, this means the only reason why you didn’t predict something is that you are not good enough and you don’t know enough.

Our stance as humans, however is not like this as some of these images are clearly embedded into our minds.

Some people think that having the right way to view the world can make you less dogmatic - the reality of it is that any worldview makes you dogmatic, except the lack of such.

The idea of God is not merely delusion created to help cope with the fear of death (although it does help people cope with the fear of death), but it is a personification to the aspect of reality that does not adhere to the causality maxim and that is unknowable. Religious rituals can be rationalized using the following argument: although we cannot really be familiar with the aspect of reality which is unknowable, we must pay tribute to it, in order not to forget of its existence.

The idea of the self is probably closer to a delusion than that of God, but it is a personification of that which is knowable - your persona, your job, the things you know and believe are you. Any habit thought or urge that is outside of this narrative is not really a part of the self. And that is not because such habits/thoughts/urges are rare. Neither because they are better, worse or in any way different than the rest of your habits/thoughts/urges. They are not part of the self for precisely that reason - they are not a part the narrative.

The self is not who you are, but who you want to be (your projected goal). On the different types of knowledge depending on the goals that a given individual has and the begginner’s mind as a goal. ===

Appendix: short history of causality, determinism and time

~-500 - Zeno of Elea pointed out the issues with the concept of continuity and the way it clashes with our everyday notion of time in his famous set of paradoxes.

In a race, the quickest runner can never over­take the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead. (as recounted by Aristotle, Physics VI:9, 239b15)

~-520 - Heraclitus pointed out the allusive nature of the the causal chain and it’s connection with the idea of the self

We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not. Moreover, we step into and out of the river as different beings.(B49a)

~ 210 - Sextus Empiricus nailed it with his critique on inductive reasoning, positing that a universal rule could not be established from an incomplete set of particular instances:

When they propose to establish the universal from the particulars by means of induction, they will effect this by a review of either all or some of the particulars. But if they review some, the induction will be insecure, since some of the particulars omitted in the induction may contravene the universal; while if they are to review all, they will be toiling at the impossible, since the particulars are infinite and indefinite.

~360 Zeno of Citium, the original founder of Stoicism, had a simple but powerful idea of the causal chain - every event has a cause, and that cause necessitates the event and that given exactly the same circumstances, exactly the same result will occur.

It is impossible that the cause be present yet that of which it is the cause not obtain.


1687 - Isaac Newton published his Principia where he did several things:

Absolute space, in its own nature, without regard to anything external, remains always similar and immovable. Relative space is some movable dimension or measure of the absolute spaces; which our senses determine by its position to bodies: and which is vulgarly taken for immovable space … Absolute motion is the translation of a body from one absolute place into another: and relative motion, the translation from one relative place into another …