Cause Effect

The perception of cause and effect is the foundation of our models of the world. Effective analysis, investigation and modeling of all types involve identifying the causes which underlie observable phenomena. Causes are the underlying elements responsible for creating and maintaining a particular phenomenon or situation. Successful problem solving, for example, is based upon finding and treating the cause(s) of a particular symptom or set of symptoms. What you identify as the cause of a particular desired state or problem state determines where you will focus your efforts.

For instance, if you believe that an allergy is caused by an external "allergen," then you will try to avoid that allergen. If you believe an allergy is caused by the release of "histamine," then you will take an "antihistamine" If you believe an allergy is caused by "stress," then you will attempt to reduce stress, and so on.

Our beliefs about cause and effect are reflected in the language pattern of "cause-effect," in which a causal connection is either explicitly or implicitly implied between two experiences or phenomena within a verbal description. As with complex equivalences, such relationships may or may not be accurate or valid at the level of deep structure. For instance, in the statement, "Criticizing him will make him respect the rules," it is not clear just how, specifically, the action of criticism will in fact make the individual being referred to develop respect for the rules. Such an action may just as easily cause the opposite effect. This type of statement leaves many potentially important missing links unspecified.

Of course, this does not mean that all cause-effect statements are invalid. Some are valid but incomplete. Others have validity, but only under certain conditions. In fact, cause-effect statements are a form of unspecified verbs. The primary danger of cause-effect statements is the implication that the relationship being defined is overly simple and/or mechanical. Because complex systems are made up of many mutually causal links (such as the human nervous system, for example), many phenomena are the result of multiple causes rather than a single cause.

Additionally, the elements involved in a cause-effect chain may each have their own "collateral energy." That is, each has its own energy source and does not respond in a predetermined way. This makes the systems much more complex because energy does not flow through the system in a fixed mechanical way. Gregory Bateson pointed out that if you kick a ball, you can determine where it will end up with a fair degree of accuracy by calculating the angle of the kick, the amount of force put into the kick, the friction of ground, etc. If you kick a dog, on the other hand, with the same angle, with same force, on the same terrain, etc., it will be much more difficult to predict where it will end up, because it has its own "collateral energy."

Causes are often less obvious, broader and more systemic in nature than the particular phenomenon or symptom that is being explored or studied. A drop in profit or productivity, for instance, may be the result of something related to competition, organization, leadership, change in the market, change in technology, communications channels, or something else.

The same is just as true for many of our beliefs relating to physical reality. We cannot actually see, hear or feel atomic particles interacting with one another, nor can we directly perceive "gravitational" or "electro-magnetic" forces. We can only perceive and measure their results. We postulate the imaginary construct "gravity" to explain the effects. Concepts such as "gravity," "electro-magnetic force," "atoms," "cause-and-effect," "energy," even "time" and "space" were in many ways just arbitrary constructs that came from our imagination (not the outside world) in order to categorize and bring order to our sensory experiences.

Albert Einstein wrote:

"Hume saw clearly that certain concepts, as for example that of causality, cannot be deduced from the material of experience by logical methods . . . All concepts, even those which are closest to experience, are from the point of view of logic freely chosen conventions

What Einstein is saying is that our senses do not actually perceive things like "causes", they can only perceive that first one event happened and then another event happened right after the first one. For example, we may perceive a sequence of events such as, first, 'a man chops on a tree with an axe' and then 'the tree falls down', or 'a woman says something to a child' and then 'the child starts crying', or 'there is an eclipse of the sun and then an earthquake the next day'. According to Einstein, we can say that "the man caused the tree to fall down," "the woman caused the child to cry" or "the eclipse caused the earthquake," but that only the sequence of the events is what is perceived - "cause" is a freely chosen internal construct that we apply to the relationship we perceived. For instance, one could just as easily say, "gravity caused the tree to fall," "the child's unfulfilled expectations caused him to cry" or "forces from inside the earth caused the earthquake" depending on which frame of reference we choose to take.

Einstein's point is that the basic rules we use to operate in the world, and the rules that the world itself operates from, are not observable in the content of our experience. As he put it, "A theory can be tested by experience, but there is no way from experience to the setting up of a theory."

This same dilemma applies with equal force to psychology, neurology, and probably every area of human endeavor. The closer we get to the actual primary relationships and rules that determine and run our experience, the further we are from anything that is directly perceivable. We cannot physically sense the fundamental principles and rules that generate our behavior and experiences, only their effects. When the brain, for instance, tries to perceive itself, there will be certain unavoidable blind spots.

Types of Causes

According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle (Posterior Analytics) there were four basic types of causes to be considered in all investigation and analysis: (1) "antecedent," "necessitating" or "precipitating" causes, (2) "constraining" or "efficient" causes, (3) "final" causes, and (4) "formal" causes.

1. Precipitating Causes

Past events, actions or decisions that influence the present state of the system through a linear chain of action-reaction.

Past Present

2. Constraining Causes

Present relationships, presuppositions and boundary conditions which maintain the current state of the system (regardless of how it got there).

- Linear Chain of Events

Precipitating Leading to the Present


Preipitating Cause


3. Final Causes

Future objectives, goals or visions which guide or influence the present state of the system giving current actions meaning, relevance or purpose.

Present Future

Final Cause

4. Formal Causes

Fundamental definitions and perceptions of something -i.e., basic assumptions and mental maps.

Looking for precipitating causes leads us to see the problem or outcome as a result of particular events and experiences from the past. Seeking constraining causes leads us to perceive the problem or outcome as something brought out by ongoing conditions within which the current situation is occurring. Considering final causes leads us to perceive a problem or outcome as a result of the motives and intentions of the individuals involved. Attempting to find the formal causes of a problem or outcome leads us to view it as a function of the definitions and assumptions we are applying to the situation.

Clearly, any one of these causes taken to be the whole explanation by itself is likely to lead to an incomplete picture. In today's science, we look mostly for mechanical causes, or what Aristotle referred to as 'antecedent' or precipitating causes. When we study a phenomenon scientifically, we tend to look for the linear cause-and-effect chain which brought it about. For instance, we say, "Our universe was caused by the 'big bang", which happened billions of years ago." Or we say, "AIDS is caused by a virus that enters the body and interferes with the immune system." Or "This organization is successful because it took those particular steps at those particular times." These understandings are certainly important and useful but do not necessarily tell us the whole story of these phenomena.

Identifying constraining causes would involve examining what holds a particular phenomenon's current structure in place, regardless of what brought it there. Why is it, for instance, that many people who have the AIDS virus do not manifest any physical symptoms? If the universe has been expanding after the 'big bang', what determines the current rate at which it is expanding? What constraints will cause the universe to stop expanding? What are the current constraints or lack of constraints that could cause an organization to fail or suddenly take off, regardless of its history?

Searching for final causes, would involve exploring the potential aims or ends of these phenomena with respect to the rest of nature. For instance, is AIDS simply a scourge, is it a lesson, or is it an evolutionary process? Is God "playing dice" with the universe, or is it heading toward something? What are the visions and goals that make an organization successful?

Identifying the formal causes of the "universe," a "successful organization" or of "AIDS" would involve examining our basic assumptions and intuitions about the phenomena. What exactly do we mean when we talk about our "universe" or about "success," an "organization" or about "AIDS?" What are we presupposing about their structure and their "nature?" (These were the type of questions that lead Albert Einstein to reformulate our whole perception of time, space and the structure of the universe.)

The Influence of Formal Causes

In many respects, our language, beliefs and models of the world function as the 'formal causes' of our reality. Formal causes relate to our fundamental definitions of some phenomenon or experience. The notion of "cause" itself, is a type of'formal cause'.

As the term implies, "formal causes" are associated more with the 'form' of something than its content. The "formal cause" of a phenomenon is that which gives the definition of its essential character. It could be said that the "formal cause" of a human being, for instance, is the deep structure relationships encoded in that person's DNA. Formal causes are also intimately related to language and mental maps in that we create our realities by conceptualizing and labeling our experience.

We call a bronze statue of a four-legged animal with a mane, hooves and a tail a "horse," for instance, because it displays the form or 'formal' characteristics we have associated with the word and concept of 'horse'. We say, "The acorn grew into an oak tree," because we define something that has a trunk, branches and a certain shape of leaves as being an 'oak tree'. Thus, tapping into formal causes are one of the primary mechanisms of Sleight of Mouth.

Formal causes actually say more about the perceiver than the phenomenon being perceived. Identifying formal causes involves uncovering our own basic assumptions and mental maps about a subject. When an artist like Picasso puts the handlebars of a bicycle together with the bicycle seat to make the head of a 'bull', he is tapping into 'formal causes' because he is dealing with the essential elements of the form of something.

This type of cause is related to what Aristotle called "intuition." Before we can begin to investigate something like "success," "alignment" or "leadership," we have to have the idea that such phenomena might possibly exist. For instance, identifying 'effective leaders' to model implies that we have an intuition that these individuals are in fact examples of what we are looking for.

Seeking the formal causes of a problem or outcome, for instance, would involve examining our basic definitions, assumptions and intuitions about that problem or outcome. Identifying the formal causes of "leadership," a "successful organization" or "alignment" would involve examining our basic assumptions and intuitions about these phenomena. What exactly do we mean when we talk about our "leadership" or about "success," an "organization" or about "alignment?" What are we presupposing about their structure and their "nature?"

A good example of the influence of formal causes is that of the researcher who wanted to interview people who had experienced "remissions" from terminal cancer, in order to find any potential patterns in their healing process. He secured permission from the local authorities to be able to gather data from a regional medical records center. When he approached the computer operator to get the names of people currently in remission, however, she said she was unable to give him the information. He explained that he had the appropriate authorization, but she said that wasn't the problem. The issue was that the computer had no category for "remissions." He asked if she could get a list of all the people who had been given a terminal diagnosis of cancer ten to twelve years previously. She said, "Yes." He then asked if she could get a list of all of the people that had died of cancer from that time period. "Of course," came the reply. He then checked to see if they were equal. It turned out that there were several hundred people who had been given a terminal diagnosis but were not reported dead. After sorting out those who had moved out of the area or had died of other causes, the researcher ended up with the names of over two hundred people who were in "remission" but slipped through the cracks of the medical records center because there was no category for them. Because this group of people had no "formal cause," they did not exist for the center's computer.

Something similar happened to another group of researchers who were interested in researching the phenomenon of remission. They interviewed medical doctors to find the names and histories of people who had remissions from terminal illnesses. The doctors, however, kept saying that they had no such patients. At first the researchers were concerned that perhaps the incidence of remission was much lower than they thought. At one point, one of the researchers decided to ask if the doctors had any patients who had made "remarkable recoveries" instead of "being in remission." The doctors immediately responded, "Oh yes, we have a lot of those."

Formal causes are sometimes the most difficult types of causes to identify because they become part of the unconscious assumptions and premises from which we operate, like the water in which a fish is swimming.

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