Why Do We See Causality All Around Us?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes the concept of intentional causality. According to Kahneman,

Your mind is ready and even eager to identify agents, assign them personality traits and specific intentions, and view their actions as expressing individual propensities. Here again, the evidence is that we are born prepared to make intentional attributions: infants under one year old identify bullies and victims, and expect a pursuer to follow the most direct path in attempting to catch whatever it is chasing.

Intentional causality is contrasted with physical causality. Physical causality is perceived when we see physical objects interacting with each other, such as one billiard ball hitting another and causing it to move.

Kahneman assigns the ability of human beings to see both kinds of causality to System 1 and believes there might be an evolutionary reason for why System 1 is so ready and adept at seeing both intentional and physical causality in the world around us.

The experience of freely willed action is quite separate from physical causality. Although it is your hand that picks up the salt , you do not think of the event in terms of a chain of physical causation. You experience it as caused by a decision that a disembodied you made, because you wanted to add salt to your food. Many people find it natural to describe their soul as the source and the cause of their actions.

The psychologist Paul Bloom, writing in The Atlantic in 2005, presented the provocative claim that our inborn readiness to separate physical and intentional causality explains the near universality of religious beliefs. He observes that “we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls.”

The two modes of causation that we are set to perceive make it natural for us to accept the two central beliefs of many religions: an immaterial divinity is the ultimate cause of the physical world, and immortal souls temporarily control our bodies while we live and leave them behind as we die. In Bloom’s view, the two concepts of causality were shaped separately by evolutionary forces, building the origins of religion into the structure of System 1.

These two kinds of causality are important to understand, for they stand in the center of the battle between two major worldviews: atheism and theism. Atheists affirm physical causality, but deny intentional causality (they claim it is just an illusion and that only physical causality is really operating). Theists affirm both physical and intentional causality.

Almost every debate about the origin of the universe, or the fine-tuning of the physical constants in the universe, or the design of biological organisms, comes down to whether you believe that intentional causality is real or illusory. There is no doubt that most human beings believe that both are real, and that this belief is hard-wired into us, but that doesn’t settle the debate.

For those who want to claim that the concept of intentional causality is not real because it is produced by evolution, that argument doesn’t fly. Where the ability to see intentional causality came from is not directly relevant to whether there really are intentional causes.  Pressing this claim would be a case of the genetic fallacy. The source of an idea cannot tell you whether an idea is true or false.

And besides, if you believe evolution caused human beings to see intentional causality, then you must also believe that evolution caused human beings to see physical causality, and almost nobody wants to say that physical causality is unreal.