In practical mechanical affairs, cause and effect thinking can have utility. For example, your car suddenly loses power on the freeway. Using reason and your senses in a troubleshooting capacity, you can trace down the cause. Does the starter turn? Yes. That means there’s juice in the battery. The cause is not a dead battery. Is there fuel getting to the carburetor? Yes, so it’s not a fuel pump. Is there spark to the spark plugs? No. Go back one step farther: is there spark at the distributor? No. OK, the cause is before the distributor. Is the coil creating spark? Yes, so it’s after the coil. Continuing in this fashion, you discover that it’s probably the spark control module, and so you pick up a replacement module and try it, and now the car starts and runs. You found the cause.
Similarly with the human animal body: you are on a hike and feel a sharp pain near your ankle. You stop and look down and see you a foxtail (grass seed head) in your sock that’s poking your skin, so you pull out the foxtail. Cause found and eliminated. Problem solved.
Even in this case however, there is not a large sequence of causes that one need examine: before pulling out the foxtail, we do not inquire into the species of grass, where it grew, what time of year it started growing, what its evolutionary lineage is, and so forth.
Deconstructing Psychological Causation
On the surface it would seem logical to apply this causal logic of troubleshooting to what (appear to be) psychological problems or patterns. And indeed this is what people have done for centuries. In the case of personality traits, patterns of behaviors, preferences and abilities and such, humans have looked to various entities that may be the cause: the position of the stars or planets when the person was born (astrology), the fours humors such as bile and phlegm (Humorism) that were thought to influence temperament and health, or the patterns of bumps on the skull (phrenology) as indicators of character and mental traits. In more contemporary times, humans still dabble with astrology, but have invented, via personal theorizing and circumstantial evidence, much more involved causal stories – some extremely complex – such as, starting in the 19th century, various flavors of Freudian-based psychoanalytic theories that were put forth, and therapeutic modalities based on it (e.g., psychodynamic psychology).
In Freudian psychology, early psychosexual dynamics at play in the family are seen as unconscious causes of psychological experiences and behavior later in life. In addition, in the Freudian view and its many offshoots of modern psychotherapeutic schools of thinking, one’s deep past (childhood trauma for example) that are hidden from consciousness are seen as causes that drive current thinking, feeling and behaving. Time, the past, history and causality lie heavily as assumptions in all these modalities. They are weighty with thinking, analysis, and taking for granted that the body and mind are unquestionable realities.
Humans find this a compelling story, one difficult to disprove, and intriguing enough in apparent plausibility: causal entities such as ego, id, superego – causal stories linked to supposed stages of development, medical-like and biological behaviors – plug into human’s cultural and biological interests in, and conflicting beliefs about, topics like sexuality, and an emerging materialism and skepticism regarding religion. In such an atmosphere of fear and fascination, an apparently medical-sounding approach was very successful – at least with regard to spurring interest and activity. These cultural factors coupled with a supposed degree of efficacy have spawned entire industries of analysts, therapists, college degrees, recognition and honors, diplomas and plaques, and enough theorizing and books to fill several mountain ranges. It also spawned hundred of offshoots – some have counted them at near 400 – of schools and sub-schools of psychotherapy.
Taking another step toward the medical and material model, in the 20th century and into the 21st, an interest in seeing the brain as the cause of behaviors, thoughts and feelings (and human experiences in general, including consciousness), has come to the fore. Some philosophers even go so far as to deny there is such a thing as consciousness (eliminative materialists – I studied with one of them!).
On a more general biological level, the common view is that genes and environment are the two biggest players in shaping who we are. They supposedly shape how we behave, what our talents and interests are, how we see life and the choices we make. These and other traits are supposedly traceable to influences from the genes that control the body and brain and mind, plus the learning from the environment and conclusion reached using the genetically built and programmed brain. In effect, we are meat robots.
Deconstructing Neurological Causation
This kind of psychological, psychoanalytic, neurological, biological (genes and environment) causal thinking has permeated the culture.
At some point some people may wonder, what about the will, and free will, and choice in all this. Or they may feel that maybe there is something like a soul, or about what happens at death, or after, or about ethics, and maybe even wonder if there’s something like consciousness, or what the mind really is. And they may have a feeling that either there’s a God or not, or that it’s simply unknowable. If the do ponder it, they may not go very deep, may stop pondering in their teens, then set it aside with conclusions or unanswerable questions and get on with living as an adult with all it’s heavy responsibilities and activities and involvement, o if the questions and fears do come up – late at night lying in bed – they are set aside, pushed side, possibly with a stiff drink or a pill, or sex or reading or television, a distraction. Or some kind of crisis
Even if the questions do come up and are re-examined, the answers that are provided by movies, books, friends, family, religion, counselors ministers, friends and acquaintances, and on and on, fill the mind, or give good enough answers, or are conflicting and confusing, and the whole thing gets put side or re-buried, so one can go on living and trying to “keep up” with demands and expectations, maintain appearances and stability of one’s family, circumstances, jobs, ambitions, goals, strategies.
In other words, who has time? And what does it matter anyway? Let someone else handle it, someone who knows better and it’s their job and expertise – minsters, philosophers, scientists, psychologists, researchers, pundits – who am I to know or answer such things.
For some humans, a tragedy or great difficulty may spur deeper reflection: the death of a love one, a bout with deep depression, a near death experience, or some large material loss. Pain may be a springboard, Or, or a spontaneous event such as a huge insight into the nature of life or oneself, or a pattern of intuitions, may steer one to pondering what it’s all about. Drug experiences, such as with psychedelics, can give some a glimpse into new realms, or spur questioning about reality, or loosen up the mental structures such that they can begin to look at life matters anew.
Or some may just have a natural interest and bent towards such questions and topics. For the author , it was a combination of all of the above. Not only his values and priorities (such as toward learning and creativity), a bit of a rebellious streak, an early spiritual interest, plus tragedies , losses and difficulties, experiments with mind-altering entheogen, a period of deep depression, plus a natural bent and curiosity about science and philosophy and questions of the universe and the nature of things and reality, all conspired to bring him to the shore of absolute knowledge or “Truth” with a capital “T”. After an academic degree in Western philosophy and art, with some computer science and biology & neuroscience thrown in) his quest turned from the academic questions to the more practical “How to Love” or “How to be happy”, How to know and get what you want” and “The Art of Living”. All the practical or applied questions and viewpoints converged with the theoretical, or were clarified, by what he discovered, or uncovered.
No matter how much natural interests and circumstances can lead one to look into matters of the ultimate, it is still up to grace (miracles, serendipity) – in other words out of our separate, individual control – to bring about a complete re-write, a wholistic change, or a insight and especially a profound realization or “enlightenment” experience. Intellectual examination can be useful for looking at beliefs, and seeing their validity when closely examined – a very valuable and often necessary investigation –to help loosen a “de-program” our minds from cultural conditioning – and various practices for dealing with feelings and unconscious or irrational reactions are useful as well. But that is as much as one can *do* (as a person).
Beyond that individual doing, there is a deeper choosing going on. This is where it gets more difficult to explain or articulate, as t relates to the main theme of the article, regarding causation. This inquiry strikes and the heart of much of what underpins out view of the world, of reality, of ourselves: causation, will, time, space, the body, the mind, identity, values, freedom, and so forth. These are all tightly interrelated. Pull one thread out, and the whole fabric potentially come unraveled. Why would one want to do that? Because rather than keeping us safe, that fabric is serving as a blinder, a hindrance, not only at a level of seeing life and reality clearly, but in practical living in the world, and in being happy loving and free. Rather than unraveling to craziness, one is unraveling to safety and sanity. And, on a truly solid basis, in real fact. This is why these seemingly esoteric philosophical matters, sometimes which feel too intellectual, are in fact keenly practical, immediate, and “important”. I put important in quotes because one the things you see is to not take life and oneself so seriously.
At one point, I realized, if there is something to”spiritual” wouldn’t it be important to know, sooner rather than later. Isn’t it a black and white case: either it’s true or not, and either it applies absolutely globally or not: it can’t be that some things, some part of life, it would apply to, and not to others. That makes no logical sense whatsoever.
That was the opening of the gate. And at the same time it also because self-evident somehow, that yes, it is possible to *know*. It can’t be dismissed as “well, we just can’t know that kind of thing” so put it aside, and it’s esoteric or nonsense or bullshit or woo woo and people would laugh or criticize or dismiss my interest or me, so push it back to the far back burner, along with the questions of space aliens and what do women want. Go with common cynicism, criticism and biting humor…
From the perspective of freedom – freedom from thinking one is a separate, limited, powerless self – rather than being “at effect” of causes, one is seen as *the cause*, as identical with the causeless being. As such, spontaneous action and choosing are one and the same. Creation and experience, choice and seemingly external event are seen as having no origin and no time sequence. What one loves, chooses, and what unfolds seemingly through time are all the same, are connected intimately. Rather than starting in the middle of chains of causation in the world of appearances, which can be endless, and goes back to the source, inward.
So rather than great spiritual insight or interest making one passive, ineffectual, de-masculated, crazy, unbalanced, impractical, it (properly understood and integrated) spiritual insight makes one connected, secure, direct, happy, effective, confident, engaged, rational, flexible.
I would replace the word “spiritual” with “free” as a state or condition, and “philosophical” as an interest. The word “spiritual” has associations that do not serve to reveal truth but can actually obscure it, as a result of religious and cultural interpretations of the meaning.
Casualty and cause and effect thinking are linchpins. They are keystones towards higher freedom when they are seen through. They are intimately connected with the projection of time.
To see how much cause and effect thinking is at play in you, just observe yourself and others, during a day how many times, when you are wanting to explain a mood, a feeling, a thought, or a decision, or a reaction, or action, or lack thereof, (for example) in yourself or others, you appeal to a psychological story, or the food one ate, or what you drank, or a medical cause. This is normal and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it can be very limiting.