If you get into any kind of discussion of a controversial topic these days, someone is likely to try to shut you down with a simple “correlation does not prove causation, stupid” kind of refrain. And they are correct that correlation cannot prove causation (a funny website named Spurious Correlations has gone viral). The rub, though, is that correlation cannot prove causation because causation is, shall we just say, difficult to prove. Further, if you want to find the cause of something (say X), you are really going to need to look for things that correlate with X.
For example, say a certain area of the world has begun to have earthquakes regularly when they were almost nonexistent before. If you find that a certain type of gas extraction had begun just before the increase in earthquakes, you might wonder whether this correlation might offer any hints into the cause of the earthquakes. If you could find no correlation between the earthquakes and anything else, you might begin to describe the earthquakes as mysterious and unexplained.
Why? Because correlation is the biggest hint of where causation might be found. The famous Scottish philosopher, David Hume, laid out some rules for judging causes and their effects. The third rule says there must be constant union between the cause and effect (and it is this correlation that “chiefly” constitutes the causal relation). In fact, it is the constant conjunction between like causes and like effects that reinforces or justifies our belief in causation itself. In other words, without correlation, we would have no reason to believe in causation at all.
Hume also points out that we can observe correlations, but we cannot observe causation. If you ask someone to describe an observation of causation, you will hear a story about a correlation. Because causation cannot be directly observed, our belief in causation cannot be verified. Our belief in causation comes from an instinct to believe in causation and not from any rational argument or proof of causation. Hume points out that even animals are born with a belief in causation even without the benefit of the rational ability to study philosophical or scientific arguments.
To be sure, once you’ve identified a correlation, you can begin the work of determining whether the supposed causes are actually responsible for the effects you’ve observed. You may not get proof, but you can get more and more evidence so that your belief in the cause is more and more justified. No matter how much evidence you get, though, you will have started with a correlation.
So, it is true that correlation does not prove causation, but a statistically significant correlation is a good place to begin your search for a cause. If you know of a way to find causation without first observing a correlation or to prove causation, please leave it in the comments.
My interest in the topic of this blog arose several years ago from a conversation with a scholar visiting from China. She had studied Christianity in China and was interested in meeting Christians in the United States and learning more about their beliefs and culture. She admitted to me that she felt some disappointment to learn that a promise of a blissful eternity did not seem to decrease the fear of death for most American Christians. If life is filled with pain and challenges, why would Christians not welcome a release to a joy of eternity?
Lucretius would not be surprised by their fear. He noted that those who boast of fearlessness in the face of death will react to death in pretty much the same way everyone else does. He says:
Of course, we also know some turn to suicide, which may or may not reflect a loss of fear of death. It may only mean a fear of the misery of life has overtaken a fear of death, but I will return to that idea later.
On the other side, I can remember discussions with Christians describing the attitude of suicide bombers in armed conflict. I have heard at least a few people who equate a willingness to die for a cause with a lack of respect for the value of life rather than a lack of fear in the face of death. If we value our lives, must we fear death? Is there a greater moral advantage to reducing the fear of death or to emphasizing death as a loss of something of great value, life?
While he doesn’t have much in common with Samuel Johnson, German philosopher Martin Heidegger also sees some advantages to our uneasiness with death. When we contemplate our own annihilation, he says, we are filled with dread, which forces us to confront what is authentic. When we are projected into Nothing, we are transcendent. If we were not “projected from the start into Nothing,” we could not relate to “what-is” or have any self-relationship. Only through confronting annihilation do we have any hope for authentic existence.
Fear of death propels us forward through life, even in the face of injury, disease, and extreme hardship, and as it propels us forward it also gives meaning to our struggle. By working to overcome our fear, we establish ourselves as free beings capable of making meaning of our own suffering. And if we will ourselves free and full of meaning, we will strive for others’ freedom as well. Indeed, Beauvoir says we extend our own freedom through the freedom of others.
As a final note, let me say that part of willing freedom for others is an effort to remove obstacles that make suicide seem like a triumph. It is for this reason we should work to promote human capabilities and, specifically, to relieve the pain and suffering of depression.
This sounds harsh, but Epictetus also advises us not to beat ourselves up when we do give over to grief. He says, “Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.” Epictetus assures us that death is not to be feared, and our terror of it comes from within, but blaming ourselves for our feelings is also pointless.
Cicero expressed his gratitude for the comforting words laced with recrimination, but also acknowledged their ineffectiveness, saying, “For I think it a disgrace that I should not bear my loss as you – a man of such wisdom – think it should be borne. But at times I am taken by surprise and scarcely offer any resistance to my grief, because those consolations fail me.”
Cicero had also been writing consolations for himself, and he felt himself the inventor of this type of self-help. He said, “Why, I have done what no one has done before, tried to console myself by writing a book.” (This is quoted by Han Baltussen in the Nov. 2009 issue of Mortality in an essay titled, “A grief observed: Cicero on remembering Tullia.”) Unfortunately, Cicero’s Consolations have not survived the passage of time, so we can only infer what they may have said. In a letter to Titus Pomponius Atticus, Cicero remarked that he wrote in order to heal, but his writing also kept him out of public view, preserving the privacy of his grief and avoiding a vulgar display of emotion.
Cicero also took his turn in consoling others, Baltussen notes, “In the examples where Cicero aims at consoling others, we find a subtle approach, developing, as it were, a ‘philosophy of empathy,’ in which he consciously or unconsciously takes personal and political aspects into account. He shows great sensibility in narrowing or widening the emotional gap between him and the consolee.” Cicero noted that one task as consoler was to establish that he needed consolation himself, as he was grieving for his friend’s loss. I think this goes a little beyond mere empathy. Cicero actually feels his own sorrow upon hearing of the sorrow of a dear friend. He understands the friend’s pain because it is a magnified form of his own pain.
I personally feel that Cicero’s struggle with his grief highlights a social failure to deal with grief constructively. Can we not manage to express and process grief openly without fear of censure from friends and counselors? Since the time of Cicero, we have developed grief therapy, expressions of support for the bereaved, and paid lip service to the process of healing. Yet, we still criticize those who can’t “get it together” within a short time. Sadness is seen as weakness, especially for men, and we do not tolerate prolonged grieving. Cicero was lucky to have friends and the ability to spend time grieving and writing his consolations. Men with less power would have had no option but to keep working without respite.
As for me, I don’t know the best way to console others, but I’ve thought a little about what kinds of consolations have helped me in the past, and these are the things that I appreciate. First, recognize that my pain is of such a magnitude that it obscures the horizon, and I can’t see beyond it. Second, do acknowledge the enormous value of the life I have lost. Third, do remind me that the person I lost had life filled with wonder, love, accomplishments, and happiness. Fourth, remind me also that this person is in a state of peace with no more struggle, pain, or discontentment. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, assure me that I am not alone in the world, my grief is justified, and that a future is possible.