Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Riddle or Schmiddle

I've made mention of Daniel Dennett earlier on my blog, but I've not read any of his books cover to cover, so can't say I'm in any position to make a critical assessment of his thinking. (What he's quoted as having said about memes, however, makes me wonder about what else I'll find.) But I did note that in his reference to a riddle demonstrating that circumstances will sometimes fail to pinpoint the "real" cause of an event, it turns out he's really showing (perhaps inadvertently) that our present conception of proximate causation is in fact illusory.
(Proximate cause: A cause which immediately precedes and produces the effect, as distinguished from the remote, mediate, or predisposing cause.)
Except the riddle that follows doesn't quite demonstrate either aspect of this conjecture:

"A case in point is the classic law school riddle:
Everybody in the French Foreign Legion outpost hates Fred, and wants him dead. During the night before Fred's trek across the desert, Tom poisons the water in his canteen. Then, Dick, not knowing of Tom's intervention, pours out the (poisoned) water and replaces it with sand. Finally, Harry comes along and pokes holes in the canteen, so that the "water" will slowly run out. Later, Fred awakens and sets out on his trek, provisioned with his canteen. Too late he finds his canteen is nearly empty, but besides, what remains is sand, not water, not even poisoned water. Fred dies of thirst. Who caused his death? "

Dennett argues that there aren't any facts shown that will settle the issue.
But I presume to say otherwise.
Because the "real" question to ask is who caused Fred to die of thirst?
And that person was Dick, because regardless of what Tom did earlier, or Harry did later, it was Dick that fully emptied out the water. Harry's intentions in that respect were not causative as the water was already gone, it's future rate of leakage no longer to be determinant. But neither were Tom's intentions a part of the reality chain, because even if Fred had drunk the poisoned water, he might have died of the poison, but not of the thirst that Dick both intended to happen and was the proximate cause of that happening. Within the given set of facts, he was the most immediate producer of the given effect.

So I think at least two things are demonstrated: There is always, by definition, one pivotal cause that can be found proximate to an observed effect. But that even while you think it's been found, something or somebody may have hidden their own proximity to the effect.. Tom, for example, may have seen Dick pour out his poisoned water, and found it wise to keep silent - that silence nevertheless an act of omission that aided and abetted Dick's purposes. And did Harry really fail to look for signs of leakage?
So do we then revise or clarify the definition of proximity to exclude such sins of omission?Otherwise all events have the potential of being discovered, in some yet undiscovered manner, as proximate to all others.

What also seems going on is an attempt to confuse causality with responsibility, and that gets us into the right versus wrong category which has more to do with the influence of intent on causation than does proximity. But as we have seen here in our riddle, the links between cause and effect may not include intention. As Omar might have said, the moving finger can write to no particular purpose.

Would Tom have been right to keep silent, for example, or did all have some deviant role in promoting the hatred? And even if any of this had influenced Dick to act on his intent, it was Dick that made the real and final choice that determined and caused the nature of the death. Did he determine the entirety of its causation? No, but he put the events that sealed Fred's fate in what was to be (barring the intervention of "lucky" accident) their inalterable sequence.
Adding more reasons to assert that causation as a function of proximity IS as of now an illusory conceit.
And who would ever expect the false premise to be hidden in the question?

(And who would have thought I'd go to these ridiculous extremes to prove I solved the riddle?)

But to prevent this effort from being a total loss, here's a verse from the Rubáiyát that begs me to include it:

And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop't we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help - for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.