Monday, October 06, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Bertrand Russell Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an irregular series of posts.

The quotation today comes from Russell's 1918 paper "On the Notion of Cause,"

"The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm"
Russell is arguing that the entire concept of cause and effect is outdated, a relic left over from the days when we believed that gods in chariots pulled the sun across the sky. We've taken away the chariot and the conscious mover, but left the metaphysical notion of cause in its place out of habit. We can say what preceded a given event and give the laws by which the system evolved and why one should have expected the event, but to say that something caused the event is going too far.

Physics specifically, but science more generally, nowadays says nothing about causes, he argues. Science describes how and not why and the cause questions are why questions that are not even meaningful to ask. He proposes that we have replaced cause and effect statements with differential equations, only philosophers haven't yet gotten the memo...or if they have ignored it out of fear of losing their jobs or because they didn't know what a "differential equation" is.

So, bullshit or not? You decide. Is there any meaningful sense in which we can talk about causes and effects? As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word to a dissertation.