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.
How We Think About Our Digital Tools

How We Think About Our Digital Tools

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport contrasts two types of approaches to the digital tools that we use and create. We have a lot of powerful social media and network messaging applications, and these tools and applications are often given to us, or seemingly forced onto us, without much choice on our end. If everyone we know is using Facebook, then we feel left out without it. If everyone in the office is using Slack for communications, then we feel that we must join in so that we don’t miss any important messages and updates. The tools we create put pressure on us to use them, even if we never wanted the tools to begin with.

 

Newport calls this standard approach to network tools the Any-Benefit Approach and he defines it this way, “You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.”

 

We don’t want to be left out of conversations at the water cooler, so we download social media apps to talk about what other people have said. We don’t want to miss a message about something in the office, so we join all the Slack channels at work. We might get an early insight into something our favorite sports team is doing, so we install the Twitter app. We don’t think critically about whether we get a lot of value from these network tools, we only ask if there is some potential benefit we might receive from the tool.

 

Newport describes the opposite strategy for determining what network tools we use as the Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: “Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.” 

 

With this frame, we don’t add twitter unless we think it is going to really make our lives better to know what our favorite sports stars are up to. We don’t install social media apps if we think we will waste time with them or if we think that we will become jealous looking at all the cool things others are doing. Rather than worrying about what we might miss out on if we don’t get the app, we worry about what we might miss out on if we lose time and attention to the app. We bring in new applications at work if they help us perform better, not if they help us stay up on office gossip or give us a few popular tidbits to chat about during our breaks. Switching to the Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection matters if we want to do meaningful work and be present with our families in meaningful ways.

Impossible Questions

A few short pages into his book Considerations, author Colin Wright explains the book with the following, “This is not a how-to instructive tome, and you won’t find solutions to all of life’s problems in its pages, but you may find some tools worth using, which you can apply to your own life, your own questions, your own problems, your own perspectives.”  As soon as I read this quote I knew that I had picked up the right book.  Recently I have been working hard to understand other people, their ideas, beliefs, and views of the world, and what I have found is that adopting any single belief about the world and sticking to it is dangerous. Whether that belief is political, ethical, behavioral, or something else, it is dangerous to think that you are correct and that others are wrong, especially if you try to press that idea on to others.

 

What I have also begun to see is that there are many more gray areas in life than we want to live with.  In certain areas we want the explanations and truths to be simple, but in a world of multiple perspectives, backgrounds, and social choices it is difficult to pinpoint the best answer to anything.  What Wright explains in his quote above is that he does not have answers for us, but that he can help us reach better places of understanding. By considering new ideas and being open to change, we can better behave and grow in a way that answers the biggest questions we have.  When I read the quote above I left myself a note, “don’t search for answers, but search for important tools.”  Wright’s idea made me think of the value in living a full life and pursuing a full life through growth.  By looking to expand my toolbox for understanding life, I will reach a more satisfying place.  By looking for answers and truth, I will only feel more discouraged by the vast gray area and the lack of concrete solutions.