The semantics of cause and effect

Owing to the nature of habit, I decided to continue my attempt at painting a Picasso by rolling paint onto a blank canvas as it comes.

As I walk down the street I see a lady carrying some flowers. It reminds me of the SMBC comic where an alien species describes humans decorating their homes with “plant genitals” – funny how that works out. I suppose that flowers evolved to look pretty and smell nice to humans, such that they (humans) readily contribute to the task of spreading their seed. This is much like how fruits work too – in exchange for the delicious nutrients they provide, they hope that the animal eating them swallows their seeds, hopefully defecating them in a fertile location. I wonder whether the fact that faeces make good fertiliser has anything to do with this..

A related interesting fact is that avocados have large seeds due to their evolution coinciding with larger sized animals. Human farmers then cultivated the plant in its current form, more or less, thus there was no evolutionary pressure on avocados to reduce the size of their seeds.

Returning to the subject of flowers, one may argue conversely that flowers smell and look nice because humans cultivated them to be so, i.e. through selective breeding. This distinction falls under the curious domain of conflating cause and effect. As an example of this, I am reminded of Lawrence Krauss mentioning this point in a talk hosted by Julia Galef, where he argues against the position of the earth being intimately suitable for life, suggesting instead that life evolved to be suitable for the environment it found itself in.

This topic of cause and effect is quite an interesting one. I wonder how one could define it formally, and whether these definitions are tied to a notion of chronological precedence, i.e. the event that occurs first is the cause, which I don’t find to be a satisfying definition. For one, it assumes that events are points on the timeline, whereas events actually span across intervals. Also, if it turns out that time is not a line but a multidimensional space, then we can no longer impose an ordering on events.

It is a difficult question I think, because it involves imposing a pragmatic level of abstraction to reason under. To make this idea clear consider the concept of gravitational force. According to Newton’s gravitational law, all objects pull on each other proportionally to the product of their masses. In this model, both (or perhaps neither one) of the objects can be said to have caused the other to be pulled towards it. If however we go up a few levels of abstraction we may well say that the earth’s gravity caused the apple to drop from the tree, but we normally wouldn’t say that the apple caused the earth to come closer to it. This semantic distinction is further confused by the fact that the apple detaches from the tree that was holding it (or was the apple holding the tree.. hmm).

This suggests that cause and effect may often be semantic definitions that are only relevant to explaining phenomena at a particular level of abstraction or model of human thought. I would not preclude the possibility of defining the semantics of this human-centric notion, though I do heartily acknowledge its difficulty.


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