No Causation without Reification

I don’t know how inspiring “no causation without reification” is as a rallying cry. Probably not very. But as a pithy description of an important insight, I think it’s quite nice.

There’s lots of reason to care about causation. In fact, it’s hard to talk about much of anything without causation showing up. We need some way to talk about the fact that stuff happens, then other stuff happens, and that other stuff happens only because the first stuff happened, or so we hope to claim. The idea that one event causes another seems fairly fundamental to how humans perceive the world.

Formally, we often model causation as the action of one thing implying another, and we might formalize this with mathematical notation like to mean some event or thing causes some other event or thing to happen.

Hopefully that all sounds boring and obvious to you, and has you wondering when I’m going to get to the point.

My point is that the entirety of what we think we mean when we say is ontological, i.e it’s in the map. Not once ever has causality existed in the territory.

Okay, I know, time to smash the downvote button, but hear me out.

Try to imagine what the world is like if you’re not modeling it. Are you picturing atoms? Particles? Wave functions? Strings?


Those are all models we impose on the world to make sense of it. Useful ones, usually, but still models.

The territory, noting that the notion that such a thing exists is itself another model, is a kind of soup of stuff that’s all mixed up and irreducible. You either have everything or nothing, for all time or no time. If you want anything else, you have to draw a map, make distinctions, and make choices.

Those distinctions are hopefully correlated with how the territory works, because that makes them useful for things like predicting what will happen (and we often call this correspondence “truth”), but they are not the territory itself. The territory just is; always has been, always will be.

This means that there’s no aspect of the territory that is causality. There’s no , there’s no , there’s no , there’s just “is”.

But if it’s not in the territory, why is causality so useful that it’s largely invisible to us, and why is it so hard for us to wrap our minds around what the world would be like if we didn’t perceive its presence?

Well, there clearly is some feature of the territory we’re carving out, making into a thing (“reifying”), and calling causality. But, we often forget, almost the instant we’ve done this, that we were the ones who did the carving, and then imagine that our perception of the world is how it really is.

This is important because it can lead us to making mistakes by thinking we understand something we don’t. We fail to notice how confused we are about the aspect of reality we call causality because it’s so close to our faces we don’t realize it’s a lens through which we are looking all the time.

And yet, everything still adds up to normality. That causation feels so natural to us is a sign that its describing something normal. So why worry about this, beyond perhaps philosophical interest?

Because sometimes it does matter. If you’re trying to build an AI, and you only get one shot at avoiding existential catastrophe, and if you decide it all hinges on something about how the AI reasons about cause and effect, you better make damn sure you know what you mean here since there’s no guarantee the AI will respect your notions of what cause and effect mean and not do something unexpected because you failed to realize the AI could just do something else you didn’t expect it could do.

I sometimes see people get sloppy when thinking about causality and forgetting that they are the ones perceiving causality and instead pretending causality is just a natural feature of the world that exists in the territory, totally independent of our perception of it. To be sure, the territory is naturally doing something that we identify as causality, except the territory cares not one bit what we think that is, and so we cannot take for granted that what we think it means for one thing to cause another is as meaningful as we think it is.

This is a hard insight to feel in your bones, and it’s tempting to gloss over it because we can tell ourselves that we can ignore uncertainty about causality just this one time because so often everything works out okay when we do. Resist that temptation. The world might just depend on it.