Sunday, November 15, 2015

Cause and effect in the extremist world

Over one hundred and twenty-five people were killed last Friday night in Paris—so far, as there are many people who are critically injured still—from a series of coordinated terrorist attacks for which ISIS has now claimed responsibility. Whether or not the last is true is open to debate, of course, but there is little doubt that the attackers were Islamists. Passports found on two of the dead terrorists indicate they came from Syria and Egypt, respectively. And witness to the attacks claim that at least one of the terrorists spoke of revenge for Syria and another shouted the now-typical slogan of such people, "Allahu Akbar."

Almost immediately after the event, as many grieved and mourned the loss of innocent life and others simply tried to process the tragedy, the conversation about how the government of France should respond began, as is always the case after these kinds of incidents. Obviously, there are a lot of people calling for a response against ISIS, a military response. And such calls breed a predictable counter: attacks against ISIS, against Middle-Eastern or other Muslim countries only serve to breed more extremists, more terrorists.

It would seem to be an interesting conundrum: how can there be an effective response, one that doesn't lead to more people adopting extremist points of view? Indeed, even economic-style responses—like sanctions—can be viewed through such a prism: all they do is cause common people pain, thus leading to anger, desperation, and extremism. But it's only a conundrum if one accepts as true the premise: that reprisals breed more terrorists (to put it as simply as possible). And really, the premise is itself founded on an assumption, with regard to the way the world—reality, even—works: everything that happens is caused by something else.

Now, a discussion on theories of causality would be pretty heady stuff, when it's approached from a purely scientific standpoint. Philosophically it wouldn't be any easier. But for a taste of the last, consider an example: a kettle full of cold water is placed on a stove and the heat is turned on; after a time, the water begins to boil, steam escapes through the hole in the kettle's lid and produces a whistling sound. What caused the kettle to whistle? There is a series of events here that some might say represent a causal chain. At a molecular level the number of events is huge. But at a more superficial level, we can identify a fair number of events:
  1. Water from a water source is pumped through pipes leading to a sink near the stove.
  2. Someone holds a kettle under the water tap in the sink.
  3. Someone turns the faucet.
  4. A valve in the pipe opens, allowing the water flow to continue.
  5. The water exits the tap and enters the kettle.
  6. Someone places the kettle on the stovetop.
  7. Electricity (assuming an electric stove) is produced at a local power plant.
  8. Some of that electricity travels through power lines to reach the stove.
  9. Someone flips a switch on the stove.
  10. Electricity is released into a metal coil beneath the stove top.
  11. The coil's temperature increases.
  12. The temperature of the cooktop increases.
  13. The temperature of the kettle increases.
  14. The temperature of the water inside the kettle increases.
  15. The water begins to boil, liquid turns to gas.
  16. The gas (steam) escapes from the kettle through a small hole.
  17. The volume of steam in the kettles increases faster then it can escape, increasing the pressure.
  18. The kettle whistles.
That's eighteen distinct events, with plenty of other ones not noted between some of the above and prior to numbers one, two, seven, and eight (hell, the building of the stove is a necessary event, as is the evolution of life into tool-using primates capable of building the stove). And that's just to describe what caused a kettle to whistle.

Of course, one might say that a number of these events are largely inconsequential to the notion of cause, to describe what caused the kettle to whistle. For many of the events can be described as conditions, as opposed to causes. Within such a paradigm, what matters, what qualifies as causal, are those things necessary and sufficient to produce the whistling: boiling water that becomes steam. That is what caused the kettle to whistle. And we can say this primarily because the events occurred near each other, in both time and space, because the cause preceded the effect (a point surprisingly missed more often than one might think), and because we know the events are tied together.

David Hume, in his A Treatise of Human Nature, carefully spells out the Rules by "Which to Judge Causes and Effects" (part III, section XV):
Since therefore it is possible for all objects to become causes or effects to each other, it may be proper to fix some general rules, by which we may know when they really are so. 
(1) The cause and effect must be contiguous in space and time.
(2) The cause must be prior to the effect.
(3) There must be a constant union betwixt the cause and effect. It is chiefly this quality, that constitutes the relation.
(4) The same cause always produces the same effect, and the same effect never arises but from the same cause. This principle we derive from experience, and is the source of most of our philosophical reasonings. For when by any clear experiment we have discovered the causes or effects of any phaenomenon, we immediately extend our observation to every phenomenon of the same kind, without waiting for that constant repetition, from which the first idea of this relation is derived.
(5) There is another principle, which hangs upon this, viz. that where several different objects produce the same effect, it must be by means of some quality, which we discover to be common amongst them. For as like effects imply like causes, we must always ascribe the causation to the circumstance, wherein we discover the resemblance.
(6) The following principle is founded on the same reason. The difference in the effects of two resembling objects must proceed from that particular, in which they differ. For as like causes always produce like effects, when in any instance we find our expectation to be disappointed, we must conclude that this irregularity proceeds from some difference in the causes.
(7) When any object encreases or diminishes with the encrease or diminution of its cause, it is to be regarded as a compounded effect, derived from the union of the several different effects, which arise from the several different parts of the cause. The absence or presence of one part of the cause is here supposed to be always attended with the absence or presence of a proportionable part of the effect. This constant conjunction sufficiently proves, that the one part is the cause of the other. We must, however, beware not to draw such a conclusion from a few experiments. A certain degree of heat gives pleasure; if you diminish that heat, the pleasure diminishes; but it does not follow, that if you augment it beyond a certain degree, the pleasure will likewise augment; for we find that it degenerates into pain.
(8) The eighth and last rule I shall take notice of is, that an object, which exists for any time in its full perfection without any effect, is not the sole cause of that effect, but requires to be assisted by some other principle, which may forward its influence and operation. For as like effects necessarily follow from like causes, and in a contiguous time and place, their separation for a moment shews, that these causes are not compleat ones.
The first three are the ones we already noted as being necessary and sufficient in order to posit a cause and effect in our kettle example. And the eighth is something of an acknowledgement that there are always other actions or events that necessarily precede the cause being considered, like all of the other events that preceded the production of steam in our example. The fifth, sixth, and seventh rules are less about defining what constitutes a cause than they are about understanding the way things work. But the fourth rule, well that's pure empiricism from the father of modern empiricism. Hume is noting that what makes something a cause of something else is observation, not just of the event itself, but of the same or similar events over time. Without this repeatability, a supposed cause is just that: supposition. It's merely an observation that a given event followed another and an assumption that there must be a link between the two events.

Consider this: I heat a kettle of water on my stove. Just as the water begins to boil, my doorbell rings. Did the boiling water cause the doorbell to ring? Barring some kind of ingenuous steam-powered doorbell, probably not. I can say that of course because I know how the kettle works, I know what actions I took to make boiling water. And—more importantly—I've boiled water before and the doorbell didn't ring the other times. Nor did it ring when my mother boiled water when I was younger. But suppose it's the very first time I have ever used a kettle and a stove to heat water. Suppose I really don't know how anything works. I might conclude that maybe the boiling water did cause the doorbell to ring. And frankly, that's fair in the moment.

But—and here's the critical thing—it's a conclusion that can be and should be reevaluated as more data becomes available: I take the water off the stove but the doorbell rings again; much later—when I'm not even in the kitchen—the doorbell rings; the next day I heat water on the stove and the doorbell doesn't ring, etc. And in contrast to all of this, I might also notice that the kettle only whistles when it is full of water and has been heated for a time; it never whistles when it is empty, nor when it is not on the stove, nor when it is unheated. So my continued observations, perhaps coupled with a greater understanding of how things work, lead me to conclude that heating water in the kettle does not cause the doorbell to ring, but it does cause the kettle to whistle.

All of this cause and effect talk has so far been limited to inanimate objects, things which by their nature don't make choices. But people are apt to view human events through the basic idea of cause and effect, as well. We talk about the causes of the Great Depression, of World War II, of the Fall of the Iron Curtain, of great historical events, but also of more mundane, day to day things, like the causes of a drop in the DOW, of traffic jams, and of rising crime rates. Thus, cause and effect is an ever-present concept (which Hume understood as well) with regard to human nature. It is how we process the world, how we determine a course of action for ourselves or for larger organizations (if we happen to have authority in that regard), because we have certain expectations with regard to outcomes, based on choices made.

And hence the warning from people who fear that reprisals against terrorists orgs like ISIS will breed more extremism, will cause people to become terrorists. So it is only fair to ask the question: is this true? Do the actions taken by Western nations—of both military and economic natures—against other nations or groups cause people in those nations to become terrorists? Are there people who would have otherwise tried to simply lead their lives but who suddenly decide to take up arms (or bomb vests) because of some action taken by a nation like France, the United States, or England?

With respect to Hume's rules (which admittedly do not account for the issue of choice in the least), this postulation can be seen as consistent with the first three. The impact of a theoretical reprisal would be localized for those who would become terrorists, it would happen first, and the relationship between the reprisal and the decision of of the individual is easily identifiable and understood. Indeed, as was the case in Paris, terrorists sometimes specifically point to a previous action by a nation as the reason for their action.

But what about the fourth rule? Is it true? Allowing that reprisal-type actions can be followed by more people becoming terrorists, is this always the case?

The problem with making such a determination is the issue of choice. Some decisions/actions by governments or other large organizations (like multinational corporations or the Catholic Church) can I think be labeled causes or consequences because the decisions/actions potentially impact all people within the groups and limit or otherwise influence their choices. For instance, the ACA has had obvious consequences; it can fairly be said to be the cause of many, regardless of whether they are deemed positive or negative.

But a reprisal-type action, while it may impact a large group, perhaps even everyone within another nation—economic sanctions might fit this bill—a real limiting of choices to the extent that people will necessarily become extremists is just not a given. Arguing that this is the case is flawed first and foremost because the choice is rooted in emotion, not reason or practicality. And it was an available choice as a matter of course prior to the given reprisal-type action.

But I think more importantly, the whole "this will cause people to turn to terrorism" argument is fundamentally one that treats people as less than people, in their own right. It assumes that many people have limited choices not because of their situation but because of their very nature. It assumes that such people will become terrorists, that their emotional response and subsequent actions are not just predictable but are foregone conclusions.

And why? Not because of the horror of the reprisal-type action. The 9-11 bombings didn't turn a chunk of the New York City population into terrorists. And the attacks in Paris are unlikely to turn a chunk of the Parisian population into terrorists, either. The dirty little secret about people who make these kinds of arguments: they assume the "others"—the peoples of the non-western world—can only react to events, do not possess the ability to actually make their own individual choices. Their responses are conditioned, whether emotional or not, and therefore predictable. Thus, the "attacking them will only breed more terrorists" argument is ultimately grounded in a belief that these other "less civilized" people are less capable and shouldn't be treated as people in m their own right, insofar as they should not be held totally responsible for the choices they make. Really, the argument assumes they should be treated more like children.

People making the argument think they are being compassionate and thoughtful (I would argue that many make the argument specifically because they want others to see them as compassionate and thoughtful) when they are, paradoxically, robbing these other people of their humanity by treating them differently, by assuming they are just steam that just can't help but try to escape from the kettle when the heat is turned up. But they're not steam. They're people who get to make their own choices and have to live with those choices, just like everyone else.


  1. Hey, Rob
    Long time no see. I think I disagree with you here a bit. Reprisals are _very likely_ to produce additional extremists. If anything, from the ranks of immediate families and friends of those killed. Is it definite with regards to every case? Of course not. But in statistical sense, it probably is. This, of course, doesn't actually make the case for not reacting. Since to do that you need to weigh the pros and cons of both action/consequences, and inaction/consequences.
    During the Second Intifada, a lot of people were telling Israel, "you can't quell this militarily. You need to make concessions. Your actions just create a cycle. etc. etc." But the reality was different. In fact, you can win militarily. It might take a lot of time to "drain the swamp", to kill enough of your opponents, to reduce the operational capability of your enemies (after a while the new 'engineers' are not as capable as the old ones etc), but it can be done. During WWII at the beginning of the war German pilots were bringing down scores of Russian pilots because they were just better pilots. But an ace took two years to train, and with time, the Soviets managed to bring enough of them down to get an eventual advantage.

  2. Hey, DM. Good to see you. Hope all is well.

    The larger point here is that one can't make this a a purely cause and effect situation, can't allow that reprisals must create more terrorists. The people who become terrorists are making choices. And they should own those choices, imo. Too many people in the US look for ways to excuse those choices, to shift blame to government policies/actions. And that's wrong-headed, imo. Sure, potential consequences need to be considered, but those consequences aren't being CAUSED by reprisals. It's unfair to the people who are effected to make this argument, imo.

  3. Of course. I am all too familiar with these arguments as they are constantly hurled at Israel.