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The Causality Dilemma

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

All chickens are born from eggs, but only chickens lay eggs from which chickens hatch. So, which came first, the chicken or the egg? This is a head-scratcher that has been bothering philosophers for centuries. There are other examples of this cause-and-effect puzzle.

The Chicken or the Egg

The creationists have no problem sorting out this paradox; God created chickens, which went on to lay eggs to produce more chickens. Case closed.

Scientists put forward the genetic mutation theory. This postulates that an ancestral bird species of the modern chicken dropped eggs that contained sufficient genetic mutations to produce something like today's Buff Orpington chook.

Or, there's a compromise point in intelligent design that says God created the conditions that made it possible for chickens to evolve.

The semantic argument is that the question, when asked, places the chicken before the egg. Others say that in dictionaries chickens are listed first. However, that seems a pretty thin argument upon which to settle an age-old paradox, particularly if you are French where the order is reversed, so that oeuf (egg) comes before poulet (chicken).

Logically, the chicken must have come first. If the egg arrived alone there would be nothing to incubate, hatch, and nurture it. That's where the weight of scientific opinion lies—chicken first, then the egg. The likes of Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson endorse that view.

Macrobius, writing around 400 CE, reported on a conversation: “You jest about what you suppose to be a triviality, in asking whether the hen came first from the egg or the egg from the hen, but the point should be regarded as one of importance, one worthy of discussion, and careful discussion at that.”

The Correlation Equals Causation Fallacy

Lots of people fall into the trap that in Latin is written “Cum hoc ergo propter hoc,” or “with this, therefore because of this.” Just because two items are connected doesn't necessarily mean that one causes the other. It's a problem that often crops up in statistics, sometimes innocently and sometimes with malicious intent.

Mark Twain warned us about this: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Let's take a ridiculous example to make the point. Two things that happen in the summer are that more people drown and ice cream consumption rises; so, the spurious assumption is that eating ice cream causes drowning. Of course, that's silly because of the existence of what statisticians call a confounding variable. In this case, it's weather: warmer temperatures encourage people to engage in these two activities, but one does not cause the other.

The FBI tells us that in the United States, 56 percent of homicides are committed by African-Americans, but Blacks constitute only 13.4% of the U.S. population. The fallacy, beloved of racists, is that being Black causes crime, but the confounding variable is poverty. Impoverishment is a major driver of crime, and African- Americans suffer from poverty at disproportionately higher rates than white Americans.

And, that brings us to politicians such as Donald Trump who have used the correlation-equals-causation fallacy for their own benefit. In October 2017, Trump tweeted “Stock market has increased by 5.2 trillion dollars since the election on November 8th, a 25% increase.” He was claiming that his election caused the value of shares to rise. He repeated this boast at least 60 times, but most analysts say the bounce in the market was coincidental and had little to do with Trump.

The Philosophy of Causality

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell gave us all fair warning when he said that “The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as to not seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.” So, let's dip a metaphorical toe into the murky philosophical waters of causality.

Many philosophers, such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, have concluded that causation cannot be absolutely proved.

Suppose you throw a rock at a window and the window breaks. You'd be justified in thinking that the rock caused the glass to break, but one of those pesky philosophers might say you can't know that with complete certainty. They raise objections such as:

  • Perhaps someone inside the house smashed the window just before your rock arrived;
  • Maybe there was an earth tremor that twisted the window frame causing the glass to break;
  • Possibly the window had a flaw and it chose that moment to shatter; or,
  • One of those rascally confounding variables showed up.

It's very likely the rock caused the window to disintegrate, but philosophers will say it's not incontrovertibly certain.


The folks behind the website philosophyterms.com write that Karl Popper “agreed that causality could never be proved scientifically, but in the end, he argued, this was not important: scientists had to assume that causality was real in order to continue their search for an orderly understanding of the universe. Science has made great progress over the last few centuries, which suggests that its assumptions (e.g. causality) are more productive than other possible assumptions—but still, we should never forget that they are assumptions.”

Bonus Factoids

  • Chickens are descended from flying dinosaurs, the earliest dinosaur example of which is archaeopteryx, which was around 150 million years ago. They reproduced through egg laying.
  • Catch-22, is a term that comes from Joseph Heller's 1961 novel of the same name. It is analogous to the causality dilemma known well to people entering the workforce. Most employers demand applicants have at least three years experience doing the job they are seeking, but most businesses won't train newbies as a cost saving measure. So, how does the novice acquire the experience need to secure a job? It's a circular conundrum with many elements of the chicken-or-egg paradox.

Sources

  • “What Is the Chicken or the Egg Causality Dilemma?” Michael Pollick, wise-geek.com, undated.
  • “2019 Crime in the United States.” FBI, 2020.
  • “Trump and the Stock Market: Correlation Does not Equal Causation.” thebusybizbee, October 18, 2017.
  • “Causation.” Alex Broadbent, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, undated.
  • “Causality.” philosophyterms.com, undated.
  • “The Chicken Book.” Page Smith and Charles Daniel, University of Georgia Press, 2000.
  • “Now You Know: Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?” Merrill Fabry, Time, September 21, 2006.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 24, 2021:

Rupert, thanks for the interesting read.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on June 24, 2021:

"Logically, the chicken must have come first. If the egg arrived alone there would be nothing to incubate, hatch, and nurture it." - The more dire problem is when we keep going down the line, even before the " flying dinosaurs". Who made them and who made whoever made them? And blablabla ... big-bang some say. Not satisfying for me because who made the big-bang and what was there before and why and what is the intent of it all ... on and on. This chicken and egg story has no end for me. Or, maybe I ate too much acid and psilocybin mushrooms. That could be it too.

"scientists had to assume that causality was real in order to continue their search for an orderly understanding of the universe" - That's how our brains work for the most part: we categorize things, we create patterns, we label things, all in trying to make sense out of this thing we call life and we have no real deep understanding of. So, ya we make things up. Haha!!

Whatever rocks your boat, right?

Interesting topic You chose here. A never ending discussion is what this is lol Cheers!

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