In The Book of Why Judea Pearl argues that humans have a unique superpower among animals and living creatures on earth. We are great at developing causal hypotheses. Animals are able to make observations about the world and some are even able to use tools to open fruit, find insects, and perform other tasks. However, humans alone seem to be able to take a tool, develop a hypothesis for why a tool works, and imagine what could be done to improve its functioning. This step requires that we develop causal hypotheses about the nature and reality of tools and how they interact with the objects we wish to manipulate. This is a hugely consequential mental ability, and one that humans have developed the ability to improve overtime, especially through cultural learning.
Our minds are imaginative and can think about potential future states. We can understand how our tools work and imagine ways in which our tools might be better in order for us to better achieve our goals. This is how we build causal hypotheses about the world, and how we go about exploring the world in search of evidence that confirms or overturns our imagined causal structures.
In the book, Pearl writes, “although we don’t need to know every causal relation between the variables of interest and might be able to draw some conclusions with only partial information, Wright makes one point with absolute clarity: you cannot draw causal conclusions without some causal hypothesis.” (Sewall Wright is who Pearl references)
To answer causal questions we need to develop a causal hypothesis. We don’t need to have every bit of data possible, and we don’t need to perfectly intuit or know every causal structure, but we can still understand causality by investigating imagined causal pathways. Our brains are powerful enough to draw conclusions based on observed data and imagined causal pathways. While we might be wrong and have historically made huge errors in our causal attributions about the world, in many instances, we are great causal thinkers, to the point where causal structures that we identify are common sense. We might not know exactly what is happening at the molecular level, but we can understand the causal pathway between sharpening a piece of obsidian to form a point that could penetrate the flesh of an animal we are hunting. While some causal pathways are nearly invisible to us, a great deal are ready for us to view, and we should not forget that. We can get bogged down in statistics and become overly reliant on correlations and statistical relationships if we ignore the fact that our minds are adept at identifying and imagining causal structures.