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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Causation as Storytelling

I've pointed out before (and it's not my original observation) that no branch of modern science contains a notion of "cause" more than vaguely similar to the folk psychology notion -- causation, as we commonsensically understand it, is something that we humans introduce to help us understand the world; and most directly, to help us figure out what to do....

[David Orban, in a comment on an earlier version of this post, noted that some formulations of relativity theory contain the term and concept of "causation." But causation as used in that context is really just "influence" -- the restrictions on light cones and so forth tell you which events can influence which other ones, but don't tell you how to distinguish which events are causal of which other ones in the stronger, commonsense usage of the "causation" concept.]

Cause, in our everyday intuitive world-view, is tied to will: "A causes B" means "I analogically intuit that if I were able to choose to make A happen, then B would happen as a result of my choice."

And, I think cause is also tied to storytelling. Causal ascription is basically a form of storytelling.

Think about the archetypal story structure:

If we envision a typical causal ascription as fitting into this structure, we have:

The Setup is the situation in which the causation occurs, the set of "enabling conditions." For instance, we rarely would say that oxygen is the cause of us being alive -- oxygen is considered an "enabling condition" rather than a cause of our life ... it's part of the set-up....

The Confrontation is the introduction of something unusual into the Setup. This must be something that is not always there in the Setup, otherwise one wouldn't be able to isolate it as the cause of some particular events. It's not necessarily a violent confrontation, but it's a violation of the norm. Could be someone shooting a gun, could be a couple having sex, could be a finger pushing down on a computer keyboard. The less expectable and frequent it is, the better -- i.e. the more convincing it will be as a potential cause of some event.

The End is the event being caused.

My suggestion is that, if one digs into the matter deeply, one will find that many of the same patterns distinguishing compelling stories from bad ones, also distinguish convincing causal ascriptions from unconvincing ones.

What Would Aristotle Say in a Situation Like This?

The Aristotelian distinction between efficient and final cause is also relevant here.

"Efficient cause" is what we usually think about as causation these days: roughly, A causes B if

P(B|A,Setup) > P(B|Setup)

and there is some "plausible causal mechanism" (i.e. some convincing story) connecting A and B in the context of the Setup.

"Final cause" is telos, teleology -- A causes B if B, as a goal, somehow reaches back in time and makes A happen as part of the inevitable movement toward B's occurrence.

Modern physics theories have no place for final causes in the Aristotelian sense. But, human psychology does! Very often, when a human seeks a cause for something, what they're doing starting with some event they've observed and trying to find a "good reason" for it.

Why did I fall in love with her? It must have been because she was beautiful ... or smart ... or rich ... or whatever.

Why did my business succeed? It must have been because I was smart ... or because it was the right time ... etc.

Storytelling generally mixes up efficient and final causation in complex ways. Many stories give a feeling of inevitability -- final causation -- by the end. And when postmodernist stories avoid giving this feeling, it's generally done intentionally, with a view toward violating the known psychological norm and doing something disconcerting or shocking.

Convincing causal ascriptions, like compelling stories, tend to mix up efficient and final causation.

Cause and Will

Nietzsche wrote that (paraphrasing) "free will is like the army commander who takes responsibility, after the fact, for the actions of his troops."

Experiments by Gazzaniga, Libet and other neuroscientists have validated that in many cases the reflective, willing portion of the human brain-mind "decides" to do something only well after some other part of the brain has actually already started to do it.

This fits in fine with the notion of causal ascription as storytelling. Willing is a matter of making up a story about how one came to do something. It had better be a compelling story or the illusion of free will will fall apart, which is bad for the maintenance of the self-model!

Causation and Storytelling in Neuroscience, AGI and Early Cognitive Development

One concrete hypothesis that comes out of this train of thought is that, when the neural foundations of causal ascription and storytelling are unravelled, it will turn out that the two share a large number of structural and dynamical mechanisms.

Another hypothesis is that, if we want our AGI systems to be able to ascribe causes in humanlike ways, we should teach our AGI systems to tell and understand stories in a humanlike way.

I strongly suspect that one of the major roles that storytelling plays in human childhood, is to teach children patterns of narrative structure that they will use throughout their lives in constructing causal ascriptions (along with many other kinds of stories).


Ahh ... I would love to improve this blog post with a bunch of concrete examples but that will need to wait for later ... I'm tired and need to wake up early in the AM ... at least "I" think that is the cause of me not wanting to improve it right now ;-D ...


lowki shomu said...

I completely agree.

We program our experience.

Your experience be caused by the story you interpret and tell.

ohdotoh said...

I'm too tired to add anything useful. ;-)

Terren said...

This is one of those things that seems completely obvious once you see it... which is the mark of a great observation! However, there is a nugget here that I think could use some explanation. That is, the success of the scientific method lends itself to the idea that causation is inherently objective. And yet story-telling is inherently subjective. So for most that is a bit of a disconnect because the subjective and objective domains usually refer to completely different aspects of reality.

Depending on your metaphysics you could say that there is no objective reality - that reality as experienced by any of us is constructed ("storytelling")... which is I think where your sympathies lie. Even if not, I think this post could be improved by explaining the above disconnect. Great post!

Odin Xenobuilder said...

This is an interesting insight. I'm led to speculate about what simpler elements give rise to our storytelling ability.

Storytelling seems a simple extension of episodic memory. We experience the world as a story of events through time, and we get causation out of that by combining it with our "fill in the blanks" ability that may be more familiar in studies of vision and how we tend to fill in the blanks from memory.

Perhaps our strong ability for identifying causation arises from these two elements of memory and it's projection onto incomplete events in time.

And to take it the other direction beyond causation, perhaps we gained the skills of logic by building on this skill of identifying causation along with something else.

Dave Baldwin said...

It matters not so much on labeling subjective or objective, the more important point is we do think in a story manner.

No matter what has happened, is happening and what is to come involves numerous storylines playing in many minds.

The bigger point is the engine with the ability to understand where the human's inner storyline is coming from will enable it to interact in a more comfortable manner.

Some think of AGI as some higher being, others think of it as a way to play out their own inner storyline involving their own lust for being above the others.

To develop a true AGI considered "Good" will require it's understanding of the many storylines around it and being able to guide those storylines to a better outcome.

There is a story of a King from long ago, considered wise. He was confronted by two women, each with their own story related to thier demanding 100% ownership of the object presented. The King thought for a moment, realizing there was no way to collaborate either story relayed to him. So he asked his assistant to split the object in half...with the reaction from the ladies he knew which one who had the better storyline moving forward and gave her the object.

The musings relayed to building from understanding one word to one phraze to one page over to taking a concept and playing it into a story are on the money.

David Orban said...

I agree with your conclusions from the point of view of our cognitive processes.

However I am surprised that you chose to open this post with the somewhat unnecessarily broad statement of no scientific theory containing the notion of cause.

Causal structures [1] are the very basis of Lorentzian manifolds [1], and determine the relationships of events that can influence each other in General Relativity.

My hunch is that as we strive to unify a theory of gravity with quantum mechanics, most of our common-sense notions of space, time, reality, and more are going to keep disappearing, but that of causality is going to stay.


Ben Goertzel said...

Thanks for the great comment David Orban!

I edited the post and inserted the following text

[David Orban, in a comment on an earlier version of this post, noted that some formulations of relativity theory contain the term and concept of "causation." But causation as used in that context is really just "influence" -- the restrictions on light cones and so forth tell you which events can influence which other ones, but don't tell you how to distinguish which events are causal of which other ones in the stronger, commonsense usage of the "causation" concept.]

Alberto said...

I miss somenthing in the explanation. There are some deeper meaning beyond storytelling for causality. Storytelling and specially self-storytellin is a manisfestation of the moral-ethical nature of the self as evolved to collaborate with other selves. This has a hard explanation in terms of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology that is , in my view, the correct level of analysis for these notions.

The story goes as such: other people summarize us as entities with a center of decission, a self. Whathever we do, is perceived by others as such and it is stored in the memory as histories with our self that decides. Therefore when we talk with others we bring credible histories to others about ourselves these histories are fabricated semiconsciously by our minds ad the first receptor are our own conscience. But actually there is no inner center of decission as you mention. However we need to think in these terms because computationally is cheaper (more on this later). Also, self-storytelling is a construction of our minds because we need to sell ourselves in the way others use to summarize us. Some selfish, credible lies enter in the equation,deue to the nature of darwinian evolution.

such constructed storytelling about us and others is the base upon we stablish our ethical and moral judgements (in order to forge alliances, modulate self steem, revenge offenses, prevent inflicted pain, advance other´s courses of action etc).

The whole of the computation using storytelling with a center of decission has a neat economy without loss of precission. The alternative is to see ourselves and other as disconected parts. with complex internal coordination for which we need such detailed a model . That is far more complicated and evolution does not favour that expense.

Somehow, to see other as entities with a center of decission is like the newtonian scientist who calculate trajectories of rigid bodies looking them as ponts with all the mass concentrated in the center of gravity.

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