Alternative, Nonexistent Worlds - Judea Pearl - The Book of Why - Joe Abittan

Alternative, Nonexistent Worlds

Judea Pearl’s The Book of Why hinges on a unique ability that human animals have. Our ability to imagine alternative, nonexistent worlds is what has set us on new pathways and allowed us to dominate the planet. We can think of what would happen if we acted in a certain manner, used a tool in a new way, or if two objects collided together. We can visualize future outcomes of our actions and of the actions of other bodies and predict what can be done to create desired future outcomes.
In the book he writes, “our ability to conceive of alternative, nonexistent worlds separated us from our protohuman ancestors and indeed from any other creature on the planet. Every other creature can see what is. Our gift, which may sometimes be a curse, is that we can see what might have been.”
Pearl argues that our ability to see different possibilities, to imagine new worlds, and to be able to predict actions and behaviors that would realize that imagined world is not something we should ignore. He argues that this ability allows us to move beyond correlations, beyond statistical regressions, and into a world where our causal thinking helps drive our advancement toward the worlds we want.
It is important to note that he is not advocating for holding a belief and setting out to prove it with data and science, but rather than we use data and science combined with our ability to think causally to better understand the world. We do not have to be stuck in a state where we understand statistical techniques but deny plausible causal pathways. We can identify and define causal pathways, even if we cannot fully define causal mechanisms. Our ability to reason through alternative, nonexistent worlds is what allows us to think causally and apply this causal reasoning to statistical relationships. Doing so, Pearl argues, will save lives, help propel technological innovation, and will push science to new frontiers to improve life on our planet.
Tool Use and Causation - Judea Pearl - The Book of Why - Joe Abittan

Tool Use and Causation

Judea Pearl’s book The Book of Why is all about causation. The reason human beings are able to produce vaccines, to send rockets into space, and maintain green gardens is because we understand causation. We have an ability to observe events in the world, to intervene, and to predict how our interventions produce specific outcomes. This allows us to develop tools to specifically achieve desired ends, and it is not a small feat.
In the book Pearl describes three levels of causation based on Alan Turing’s proposed system to classify cognitive systems in terms of the queries systems can answer. The three levels of causation are association, intervention, and counterfactuals. Pearl explains that many animals observe the world and detect patterns, but that fewer animals use tools to intervene in the world. Fewer still, Pearl explains, possess the ability to actually develop and improve new tools. As he writes, “tool users do not necessarily possess a theory of their tool that tells them why it works and what to do when it doesn’t. For that, you need to have achieved a level of understanding that permits imagining. It was primarily this third level that prepared us for further revolutions in agriculture and science and led to a sudden and drastic change in our species’ impact on the planet.”
The theory of tool use that Pearl mentions in the quote is our ability to see and understand causation. We can observe that rocks can be used to cut plant fibers, and then we can identify the qualities in some rocks that make them better at cutting fibers than others. But to get to the point where we are sharpening an edge of a rock to make it even better at cutting fibers, we have to have a causal understanding of what allows the rock to cut and we need sufficient imagination to predict what would happen if the rock had a sharper edge. We have to imagine an outcome in a future world where something was different, and that something different caused a new outcome.
This point is small, but is actually quite profound. Our minds are able to conceptualize causality and build hypothesis about the world that we can test. This can improve our tool usage, improve the ways we act and behave, and can allow us to achieve desired ends through study, prediction, imagination, and experimentation. The key, however, is that we have a theory of the tools and how they work, that we have an ability to intuit causation.
We hear all the time that correlation is not causation and in our modern technological age we are looking to statistics to help us solve massive problems. However, as Pearl’s quote shows, data, statistics, and information is useless unless we have a theory of the tools we can use based on the knowledge we gain from the data, statistics, and information. We have to embrace causation and our ability to imagine and predict causal structures if we want to do anything with the data.
This all reminds me of the saying, when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. This represents an inability to understand causality, a lack of imagination and predictive prowess. Statistics without a theory of causality, without an ability to use our power to identify and predict causation, is like the hammer and nail saying. It is useless and throws the same toolkit and approach at every problem. Statistics alone doesn’t build knowledge – you also need a theory of causation.
Pearl’s message throughout the book is that statistics (tool use) and causation is linked, that we need a theory and understanding of causation if we are going to do anything with data, statistics, and information. For years we have relied on statistical relationships to help us understand the world, but we have failed to apply the same rigorous study to causation, and that will make it difficult for us to use our new statistical power to achieve the ends that big data and statistical processing promise.

Be Calm Ahead of Your Obstacle

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” Our minds work really hard to keep us safe, keep us in important positions, and keep us connected so that we can succeed and so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy a high status life. Our minds are trying to help us navigate an uncertain future, but sometimes our minds go too far and we become paralyzed with a fear that is worse than the outcome we want to avoid.

 

Seneca continues, “What I advice you to do is not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not come yet.”

 

We can live our lives worrying about what will go wrong five minutes from now, five days from now, or five years from now, but we never truly know what is around the corner. Sometimes we set artificial deadlines on ourselves and sometimes those deadlines are forced upon us, but that doesn’t mean we need to live every moment of our lives up to that deadline in fear of what will happen if we don’t achieve what we intended by that date. The fear that we feel can be useful in pushing us to get stuff done and avoid procrastination, but when we notice that we can’t sleep at night because we are worried of the negative consequences of what may happen if that bad thing we fear occurs, then it is time for us to step back and refocus on our present moment. I find that it is helpful for me to look at the fears that I have and recognize that in the present moment I am fine, and to recognize that the status quo will most likely continue if I miss the deadline or if the bad thing does happen. There are plenty of things to fear, and we should build a capacity to see that we will still be able to move on with life even if some of our worst fears come true.

 

Ultimately, we know we are going to have obstacles and setbacks in our lives, but that does not mean we need to live every moment in fear of what bad thing is around the corner. We can live conservatively and save money and resources to confidently weather such challenges, but we do not need to allow negative things in our lives to cause us trauma before they have occurred. Preparing ourselves ahead of time will help mitigate the fear, but learning to accept that bad things will happen and learning to enjoy the present moment are the only ways we can truly escape from the fear of what lies ahead.