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Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Cause-and-Effect Problem

It occurred to me the first time when I read something in a popular science magazine about a theory that proposes that time is an illusion and that time, as we experience it, is created by the human brain's perception alone, which begs the question of whether animals experience time in the same way. (See also here.) I can't remember the specifics, which I didn't really understand anyway, but it had something to do with quantum physics. Of course there is also the long-standing argument about time being non-directional, derived from the theory of relativity. The only linchpin that still supports the unidirectional nature of time is the second law of thermodynamics (ie, entropy).

Lately the thought has re-surfaced to bug me. It's not my concern whether in physics time does not exist. My concern is this --- If time is merely an illusion, then what we think of as cause and effect in the world is also an illusion; therefore there is no cause, only effect.

For a while I was hoping to come up with a story to describe the theory mentioned above, which says time is a conglomeration of unrelated and discrete quantum moments, like many pieces of paper stacked into a pile. So I began to dream up a series of unrelated excerpts or sentences strung together with no logic or connection with each other. Well, what a pretentious and boring pile of horseshit that would be.

It then dawned on me how the mind hates a pile of separate pieces of paper thrown together. Nope, please give us a story in which one thing leads to another until the logical end. A string of unconnected quanta of moments would not do. It's unhuman.

Then something cracked open. What if the mind is indeed wrong? What if cause and effect are merely the story created by our mind to explain phenomena of the world and it is completely wrong?

It has been known for a long time in psychological experiments that consciousness does not direct the body, but only tells stories about what the body experiences, and sometimes gets it very wrong. For example, experiments have shown that one does not smile because he feels happy, but rather the facial muscle's tension in forming a smile that sends signals to the brain to feel happy. Sounds crazy. I tried it. I pulled my facial muscle into a forced smile position for about 2-3 minutes while folding laundry. Nothing happened until about 5 minutes later. Suddenly I began to smile involuntarily but naturally with no particular stimulus. (This realization, of course, led to more giggles, although the cause and effect could not be determined.) Then about 10 minutes later, the stupid smile emerged again involuntarily while I was doing or thinking nothing in particular. There have also been experiments showing that consciousness has nothing to do with one's decisions, except to make up stories or excuses for them after the fact.

These thoughts converge into one idea. What if there is no realistic connection between what happened one minute ago and now and one minute later? There is an incentive for us (ie, our conscious thoughts) to believe in cause and effect, isn't there? Because it gives us a sense of control, a sense that things happen because we make them so, and therefore we have choices ... What if the sense of control is all false? What if my action now and my action before and my action later have nothing to do with each other? What if I cannot have what I want by reaching for it and willing myself to get it? Oh that is too awful, too horrible to contemplate. I shall have what I want by taking it, and I have what I want because I reached for it. Can't these physicists leave me alone in the happy illusion of free will and control of my own life?

I mentioned these thoughts to another sci fi writer, who said, "Oh yeah, Kant said that time, space, and causality could be all in our head, and we can never know for sure." Ugh, so it's nothing new whatsoever in what I came up with! It's all been said before!! Maybe there are no new thoughts to be thought any more!!!

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