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.
Talking About Causation - Judea Pearl - The Book of Why - Joe Abittan

Talking About Causation

In The Book of Why Judea Pearl argues that humans are better at modeling, predicting, and identifying causation than we like to acknowledge. For Pearl, the idea that we can see direct causation and study it scientifically is not a radical and naïve belief, but a common sense and defensible observation about human pattern recognition and intuition of causal structures in the world. He argues that we are overly reliant on statistical methods and randomized controlled trials that suggest relationships, but never tell us exactly what causal mechanisms are at the heart of such relationships.
One of the greatest frustrations for Pearl is the limitations he feels have been placed around ideas and concepts for causality. For Pearl, there is a sense that certain research, certain ways of talking about causality, and certain approaches to solving problems are taboo, and that he and other causality pioneers are unable to talk in a way that might lead to new scientific breakthroughs. Regarding a theory of causation and a the history of our study of causality, he writes, “they declared those questions off limits and turned to developing a thriving causality-free enterprise called statistics.”
Statistics doesn’t tell us a lot about causality. Statistical thinking is a difficult way for most people to think, and for non-statistically trained individuals it leads to frustrations. I remember around the time of the 2020 election that Nate Silver, a statistics wonk at Fivethirtyeight.com, posted a cartoon where one person was trying to explain the statistical chance of an outcome to another person. The other person interpreted statistical chances as either 50-50 or all or nothing. They interpreted a low probability event as a certainty that something would not happen and interpreted a high probability event as a certainty that it would happen, while more middle ground probabilities were simply lumped in as 50-50 chances. Statistics helps us understand these probabilities in terms of the outcomes we see, but doesn’t actually tell us anything about the why behind the statistical probabilities. That, I think Pearl would argue, is part of where the confusion for the individual in the cartoon who had trouble with statistics stems from.
Humans think causally, not statistically. However, our statistical studies and the accepted way of doing science pushes against our natural causal mindsets. This has helped us better understand the world in many ways, but Pearl argues that we have lost something along the way. He argues that we needed to be building better ways of thinking about causality and building models and theories of causality at the same time that we were building and improving our studies of statistics. Instead, statistics took over as the only responsible way to discuss relationships between events, with causality becoming taboo.
“When you prohibit speech,” Pearl writes, “you prohibit thought and stifle principles, methods, and tools.” Pearl argues that this is what is happening in terms of causal thinking relative to statistical thinking. I think he, and other academics who make similar speech prohibition arguments, are hyperbolic, but I think it is important to consider whether we are limiting speech and knowledge in an important way. In many studies, we cannot directly see the causal structure, and statistics does have ways of helping us better understand it, even if it cannot point to a causal element directly. Causal thinking alone can lead to errors in thinking, and can be hijacked by those who deliberately want to do harm by spreading lies and false information. Sometimes regressions and correlations hint at possible causal structures or completely eliminate others from consideration. The point is that statistics is still useful, but that it is something we should lean into as a tool to help us identify causality, not as the endpoint of research beyond which we cannot make any assumptions or conclusions.
Academics, such as Pearl and some genetic researchers, may want to push forward with ways of thinking that others consider taboo, and sometimes fail to adequately understand and address the concerns that individuals have about the fields. Addressing these areas requires tact and an ability to connect research in fields deemed off limits to the fields that are acceptable. Statistics and a turn away from a language of causality may have been a missed opportunity in scientific understanding, but it is important to recognize that human minds have posited impossible causal connections throughout history, and that we needed statistics to help demonstrate how impossible these causal chains were. If causality became taboo, it was at least partly because there were major epistemic problems in the field of causality. The time may have come for addressing causality more directly, but I am not convinced that Pearl is correct in arguing that there is a prohibition on speech around causality, at least not if the opportunity exists to tactfully and responsibly address causality as I think he does in his book.
Epistemic Self-Improvement

Epistemic Self-Improvement

Is epistemic self-improvement possible? That is, can we individually improve the ways we think to become more conducive to knowledge? If we can’t, does that mean we are stuck with epistemic vices, unable to improve our thinking to become epistemically virtuous?
These are important questions because they determine whether we can progress as a collective and overcome ways of thinking that hinder knowledge. Gullibility, arrogance, and closed-mindedness are a few epistemic vices that I have written about recently that demonstrate how hard epistemic self-improvement can be. If you are gullible it is hard to make a change on your own to be less easily fooled. If you are arrogant it is hard to be introspective in a way that allows you to see how your arrogance has limited your knowledge. And if you are closed-minded then it is unlikely you will see a need to expand your knowledge at all. So can we really improve ourselves to think better?
Quassim Cassam seems to believe that we can. He identifies ways in which people have improved their thinking over time and how humans within institutions have become more epistemically virtuous throughout our history. After running through some examples and support for epistemic self-improvement in Vices of the Mind, Cassam writes, “none of this proves that self-improvement in respect of thinking vices is possible, but if our thinking can’t be improved that would make it one of the few things that humans do that they can’t do better with practice and training.”
I am currently reading Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People in the World and he argues that human psychology both shapes and is shaped by institutions. I think he would agree with Cassam, arguing that individual self-improvement is possible, and that it can contribute to a positive feedback loop where people improve their thinking, improving the institutions they are a part of, which feeds back into improved thinking. I agree with Cassam and would find it surprising if we couldn’t improve our thinking and become more epistemically virtuous if we set about trying to do so with practice. Viewing this idea through a Henrich lens also suggests that as we try to become more epistemically virtuous and focus on epistemic virtuosity, we would shape institutions to better support us, giving us an extra hand from the outside to help us improve our thinking. Individually we can become better thinkers and that allows us to create better institutions that further support better thinking, creating a virtuous cycle of epistemic self-improvement. There are certainly many jumping off points and gears that we can throw sand into during this process, but overall, it should leave us feeling more epistemically optimistic about humans and our societies.
Ignorance is Culpable

Ignorance is Culpable

We are responsible for our vices and deserve blame for them. We are sometimes responsible for acquiring our vices and are almost always responsible for eliminating our vices. However, sometimes our vices prevent us from being able to recognize that we possess vices and from taking the necessary steps to eliminate them. However, blind-spots induced by our vices do not absolve us from our culpability, they only make it worse.
Quassim Cassam references former President Donald Trump to demonstrate how we become more culpable for our vices when they create blind-spots in our lives. Cassam writes:
“Few would be tempted to regard the cruel person’s ignorance of his own cruelty as non-culpable on the grounds that it is the result of his cruelty. If the only thing preventing one from knowing one’s vices is those very vices then one’s ignorance is culpable. It is on this basis that Trump’s ignorance of his epistemic incompetence can still be deemed culpable. It is no excuse that he is so incompetent that he can’t get the measure of his incompetence. That only makes it worse.”
The blind-spots induced by our vices may inhibit us from actually recognizing how our vices shape the ways in which we act, think about the world, and behave. Cassam demonstrates this throughout his book as he investigates epistemic vices, those vices which hinder knowledge. If we fail to recognize how little we actually know about the world and can’t be bothered to learn anything, then we will never actually see how little we know. Arrogance, closed-mindedness, and intellectual laziness will prevent us from actually seeing that our thinking is vicious, and that our thinking is limiting our knowledge.
However, we cannot then say that our vices are not our fault. Arguing that we couldn’t have changed and couldn’t have improved our thinking because our vices were in the way simply demonstrates how vicious our thinking is. Instead of removing the culpability of the vice, Cassam argues, this line of thinking simply doubles down on the cost of the vice, making us even more revision responsible for our vice.  Ultimately, we are culpable for our vices and for our ignorance about our vices.
Improve Your Posture - Joe Abittan - Vices Of The Mind - Cassam

Improve Your Posture

In the book Vices of  the Mind, Quassim Cassam compares our thinking to our physical posture. Parents, physical therapists, and human resources departments all know the importance of good physical posture. Strengthening your core, lifting from your legs and not your back, and having your computer monitor at an appropriate height is important if you are going to avoid physical injuries and costly medical care to relive your pain. But have you ever thought about your epistemic posture?
Your epistemic posture can be thought of in a similar manner as your physical posture. Are you paying attention to the right things, are you practicing good focus, and are you working on being open-minded? Having good epistemic posture will mean that you are thinking in a way that is the most conducive to knowledge generation. Just as poor physical posture can result in injuries, poor epistemic posture can result in knowledge injuries (at least if you want to consider a lack of knowledge and information an injury).
Cassam writes, “The importance of one’s physical posture in doing physical work is widely recognized. The importance of one’s epistemic posture in doing epistemic work is not. Poor physical posture causes all manner of physical problems, and a poor epistemic posture causes all manner of intellectual problems. So the best advice to the epistemically insouciant and intellectually arrogant is: improve your posture.”
Improving our epistemic posture is not easy. Its not something we just wake up and decide we can do on our own, just as we can’t improve our walking form, the way we lift boxes, or easily adjust our workspace to be the most ergonomic all on our own. We need coaches, teachers, and therapists to help us see where we are going through dangerous, harmful, or imbalanced motions, and we need them to help correct us. These are skills that should be taught from a young age (both physically and epistemically) to help us understand how to adopt good habits maintain a healthy posture throughout life.
Thinking in ways that build and enhance our knowledge is important. It is important that we learn to be open-minded, that we learn how not to be arrogant, and that we learn that our opinions and perspectives are limited. The more we practice good epistemic posture the better we can be at recognizing when we have enough information to make important decisions and when we are making decisions without sufficient information. It can help us avoid spreading misinformation and disinformation, and can help us avoid harmful conspiracy theories or motivated reasoning. Good epistemic posture will help us have strong and resilient minds, just as good physical posture will help us have strong and resilient bodies.
Anecdotal Versus Systematic Thinking

Anecdotal Versus Systematic Thinking

Anecdotes are incredibly convincing, especially when they focus on an extreme case. However, anecdotes are not always representative of larger populations. Some anecdotes are very context dependent, focus on specific and odd situations, and deal with narrow circumstances. However, because they are often vivid, highly visible, and emotionally resonant, they can be highly memorable and influential.
Systemic thinking often lacks many of these qualities. Often, the general reference class is hard to see or make sense of. It is much easier to remember a commute that featured an officer or traffic accident than the vast majority of commutes that were uneventful. Sometimes the data directly contradicts the anecdotal stories and thoughts we have, but that data often lacks the visibility to reveal the contradictions. This happens frequently with news stories or TV shows that highlight dangerous crime or teen pregnancy. Despite a rise in crime during 2020, we have seen falling crime rates in recent decades, and despite TV shows about teen pregnancies, those rates have also been falling.
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam examines anecdotal versus systematic thinking to demonstrate that anecdotal thinking can be an epistemic vice that obstructs our view of reality. He writes, “With a bit of imagination it is possible to show that every supposed epistemic vice can lead to true belief in certain circumstances. What is less obvious is that epistemic vices are reliable pathways to true belief or that they are systematically conducive to true belief.”
Anecdotal versus systematic thinking or structural thinking is a useful context for thinking about Cassam’s quote. An anecdote describes a situation or story with an N of 1. That is to say, an anecdote is a single case study. Within any population of people, drug reactions, rocket launches, or any other phenomenon, there are going to be outliers. There will be some results that are strange and unique, deviating from the norm or average. These individual cases are interesting and can be useful to study, but it is important that we recognize them as outliers and not generalize these individual cases to the larger population. Systematic and structural thinking helps us see the larger population and develop more accurate beliefs about what we should normally expect to happen.
Anecdotal thinking may occasionally lead to true beliefs about larger classes, but as Cassam notes, it will not do so reliably. We cannot build our beliefs around single anecdotes, or we will risk making decisions based on unusual outliers. Trying to address crime, reduce teen pregnancy, determine the efficacy of a medication, or verify the safety of a spaceship requires that we understand the larger systemic and structural picture. We cannot study one instance of crime and assume we know how to reduce crime across an entire country, and none of us would want to ride in a spaceship that had only been tested once.
It is important that we recognize anecdotal thinking, and other epistemic vices, so we can improve our thinking and have better understandings of reality. Doing so will help improve our decision-making, will improve the way we relate to the world, and will help us as a society better determine where we should place resources to help create a world we want to live in. Anecdotal thinking, and indulging in other epistemic vices, might give us a correct answer from time to time, but it is likely to lead to worse outcomes and decisions over time as we routinely misjudge reality. This in turn will create tensions and distrust among a society that cannot agree on the actual trends and needs of the population.
Thinking Conspiratorially Versus Evidence-Based Thinking - Joe Abittan

Thinking Conspiratorially Versus Evidence-Based Thinking

My last two posts have focused around conspiratorial thinking and whether it is an epistemic vice. Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind argues that we can only consider thinking conspiratorially to be a vice based on context. He means that conspiratorial thinking is a vice dependent on whether there is reliable and accurate evidence to support a conspiratorial claim. Thinking conspiratorially is not an epistemic vice when we are correct and have solid evidence and rational justifications for thinking conspiratorially. Anti-conspiratorial thinking can be an epistemic vice if we ignore good evidence of a conspiracy to continue believing that everything is in order.
Many conspiracies are not based on reliable facts and information. They create causal links between disconnected events and fail to explain reality. Anti-conspiratorial thinking also creates a false picture of reality, but does so by ignoring causal links that actually do exist. As epistemic vices, both ways of thinking can be described consequentially and by examining the patterns of thought that contribute to the conspiratorial or anti-conspiratorial thinking.
However, that is not to say that conspiratorial thinking is a vice in non-conspiracy environments and that anti-conspiratorial thinking is a vice in high-conspiracy environments. Regarding this line of thought, Cassam writes, “Seductive as this line of thinking might seem, it isn’t correct. The obvious point to make is that conspiracy thinking can be vicious in a conspiracy-rich environment, just as anti-conspiracy thinking can be vicious in contexts in which conspiracies are rare.” The key, according to Cassam, is evidence-based thinking and whether we have justified beliefs and opinions, even if they turn out to be wrong in the end.
Cassam generally supports the principle of parsimony, the idea that the simplest explanation for a scenario is often the best and the one that you should assume to be correct. Based on the evidence available, we should look for the simplest and most direct path to explain reality. However, as Cassam continues, “the principle of parsimony is a blunt instrument when it comes to assessing the merits of a hypothesis in complex cases.” This means that we will still end up with epistemic vices related to conspiratorial thinking if we only look for the simplest explanation.
What Cassam’s quotes about conspiratorial thinking and parsimony get at is the importance of good evidence-based thinking. When we are trying to understand reality, we should be thinking about what evidence should exist for our claims, what evidence would be needed to support our claims, and what kinds of evidence would refute our claims. Evidence-based thinking helps us avoid pitfalls of conspiratorial or anti-conspiratorial thinking, regardless as to whether we live in conspiracy rich or poor environments. Accurately identifying or denying a conspiracy based on thinking without any evidence, based on assuming simple relationships, is ultimately not much better than simply making up beliefs based on magic. What we need to do is learn to adopt evidence-based thinking and to better understand the causal structures that exist in the world. That is the only true way to avoid the epistemic vices related to conspiratorial thinking.
Paranormal Beliefs, Superstitions, and Conspiratorial Thinking

Paranormal Beliefs, Superstitions, and Conspiratorial Thinking

How we think, what we spend our time thinking about, and the way we view and understand the world is important. If we fail to develop accurate beliefs in the world then we will make decisions based on causal structures that do not exist. Our actions, thoughts, and behaviors will inhibit knowledge for ourselves and others, and our species will be worse off because of it.
This idea is at the heart of Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind. Throughout our human history we have held many beliefs that cannot plausibly be true, or which we came to learn were incorrect over time. Cassam would argue (alongside others such as Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari, and Joseph Henrich) that adopting more accurate and correct beliefs and promoting knowledge would help us systematically make better decisions to improve the life of our fellow humans. Learning where we were wrong and using science, technology, and information to improve our decision-making has helped our world become less violent, given us more opportunity, provided better nutrition, and allowed us to be more cooperative on a global level.
This is why Cassam addresses paranormal beliefs, superstitions, and conspiratorial thinking in his book. While examining conspiracy theories in depth, he writes, “studies have also found that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with superstitious and paranormal beliefs, and it has been suggested that these beliefs are associated because they are underpinned by similar thinking styles [italicized text is cited with Swami et al. 2011].  Cassam argues that conspiracy theories are different from the other two modes of thinking because they can sometimes be accurate in their descriptions of the world. Sometimes a politician truly is running a corruption scheme, sometimes a group of companies are conspiring to keep prices high, and sometimes a criminal organization is hiding nefarious activities in plain sight. Conspiratorial thinking in some instances can reveal real causal connections in the world.
However, conspiratorial thinking is often bizarre and  implausible. When our conspiratorial thinking pushes us off the deep edge, then it does share important characteristics with superstitious and paranormal thinking. All three can be described by positing causal connections that cannot possibly exist between phenomena happening or imagined in the real world. They create explanations that are inaccurate and prevent us from identifying real information about the world. Superstitions posit causal connections between random and unconnected events and paranormal thinking posits causal connections between non-existent entities and real world events. Conspiratorial thinking seems to fall in line with both ways of thinking when it is not describing reality.
Over the last few years we have seen how conspiratorial thinking can be vicious, how it can inhibit knowledge, and how it can have real life and death consequences when it goes wrong. Superstitious thinking doesn’t generally seem to have as severe of consequences, but it still prevents us from making the best possible decisions and still drives us to adopt incorrect worldviews, sometimes entrenching unfair biases and prejudices. Paranormal thinking has been a foundation of many world religions and fables used to teach lessons and encourage particular forms of behavior. However, if it does not describe the world in a real way, then the value of paranormal thinking is minimized, and we should seriously consider the harms that can come from paranormal thinking, such as anxiety, suicide, or hours of lost sleep. These ideas are important to consider because we need to make the best possible decisions based on the most accurate information possible if we want to continue to advance human societies, to live sustainably, and to continue to foster cooperation and community between all humans on a global scale. Thinking accurately takes practice, so pushing against unwarranted conspiracy theories, superstitions, and paranormal beliefs helps us build our epistemic muscles to improve thinking overall.
Thinking Conspiratorially

Thinking Conspiratorially

Over the last few years a number of wild conspiracy theories have become popular. Former President Donald Trump embraced a conspiracy theory that the 2020 Presidential Election was rigged (it was not), supported the Qanon conspiracy theory, and did little to push back against conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19. His actions, behaviors, and beliefs demonstrate that thinking conspiratorially can be an epistemic vice. His willingness to believe wild falsehoods obstructed knowledge for himself and his most ardent supporters.
However, thinking conspiratorially is not always an epistemic vice. One reason why conspiracy theories become so gripping and why people sometimes fall into them is because real conspiracies do occur. Nixon’s Watergate Scandal, Trump’s withholding of financial and military aid unless Ukraine announced an investigation into Joe Biden and his son, and fraud schemes uncovered by inspectors general and government auditors demonstrate that nefarious conspiracies sometimes are real. While thinking conspiratorially can become an epistemic vice, the same is true for anti-conspiratorial thinking.
In the book Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam quotes Dr. Charles Pigden from the University of Otago in New Zealand by writing, “there is nothing inherently vicious about believing or being disposed to believe conspiracy theories.” Cassam argues that conspiratorial thinking is not an epistemic vice on its own, but is instead a context dependent vice or virtue. He continues, “there are environments in which either way of thinking can be epistemically virtuous or vicious, and a way to capture this context-relativity is to describe these thinking styles as conditionally virtuous or vicious.”
The examples I used earlier show how conspiratorial thinking can be either virtuous or vicious. In the case of our former President, his conspiratorial thinking spread misinformation, suppressed true and accurate information, and created a set of false beliefs that some of his supporters believed so strongly that they stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying the election. The context of his conspiracy theories obstructed knowledge and caused substantial harm to life and property. However, a government auditor who notices inconsistencies in paperwork and accounting practices may be rewarded for thinking conspiratorially, at least to a point. Believing that something nefarious could possibly be going on will encourage the auditor to review financial statements and testimony from personnel with more scrutiny, potentially helping them uncover real fraud. Of course, they could still go too far and push the issue beyond reasonable bounds by thinking conspiratorially, but this type of thinking is conditionally virtuous when it discovers true fraud and improves knowledge about fraud schemes.
Given the dramatic consequences of conspiracy thinking over the last few years, it is easy to dismiss thinking conspiratorially as an epistemic vice. However, we should remember that it is only conditionally an epistemic vice, and that sometimes conspiracies do turn out to be true (or at least partially true). We don’t have to give every conspiracy our respect and attention, but when a conspiracy does appear to be grounded in reality and supported by real evidence, then we should not be too quick to dismiss it.
Causal Links Between Unconnected Events

Causal Links Between Unconnected Events

As a kid I grew up attending basketball camps at UCLA. I played in the old gym that used to host UCLA games in front of a few thousand fans, played on the current court in main stadium, and slept in the dorms. With my history of basketball at UCLA, I have always been a fan of the men’s basketball team, rooting for them and the Nevada Wolf Pack – where I actually went to school. With the UCLA team making a deep run in the NCAA March Madness tournament, I have been reminded of all the superstitious thinking that surrounds sports and that I used to indulge in.
Sports seem to bring out superstitious thinking in even the most rational of people. I try very hard to think about causal structures and to avoid seeing non-existent causal links between unconnected events, but nevertheless, it is hard to not let superstitious thinking creep in. When you are watching a game it is hard not to feel like you have to sit in the right spot, have to watch from a certain room, or have to avoid certain behaviors in order to keep your team in the lead. However, it is absolute nonsense to think that your actions on your couch, miles away from the sporting venue where the game is taking place, could have any causal link to the way that a sports team performs.
In the book Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam spends time examining what is happening within our mind when we engage in superstitious thinking. He explains that superstitious thinking qualifies as an epistemic vice because it gets in the way of knowledge. It prevents us from forming accurate beliefs about the world. “Superstitious thinking,” Cassam writes, “isn’t a generally reliable method for forming true beliefs about the future; it won’t generally lead to true beliefs because it posits causal links between unconnected events. … beliefs based on superstitious thinking aren’t reasonable.”
Cassam gives the example of superstitions about walking under ladders in the book. Someone with a superstition believing that bad luck will befall them if they walk under a ladder will probably avoid walking under ladders, and as a result they won’t be as likely to have paint drip on them, to have something fall on their head, or to knock over the ladder and anyone or anything on top of it. Their superstition will lead to better outcomes for them, but not because the superstition helped them create true beliefs about the dangers of walking under ladders. The individual ends up with the correct answer, but interprets the wrong causal chain to get there.
Thinking about rational and plausible causal chains is a way to escape superstitious thinking. You can rationally examine the risks, harms, and benefits of certain behaviors and actions with rational connections between events to see when a superstition is nonsense, and when it pulls from real-life causal chains to help improve life. Trying not step on cracks will not prevent you from starting a causal chain that leads to your mother’s broken back, but it will help ensure you have more stable and steady footing when you walk. Wearing the same basketball jersey for each sports game has no causal connection with the team’s performance, and wearing it or not wearing it will not have an impact on how your favorite team performs. We should strive to have accurate beliefs about the world, we should work to see causal connections clearly, and we should limit superstitious thinking even if it is about trivial things like sports.