Correlation Does Not Equal Causation (Given Names part 1)

I see things all the time and because I have in my mind an overarching plan, I think the particulars, some of which cannot be construed as anything, fit within the frame of the aforementioned overarching plan.

The three words I will use to line out a gloss on the title phrase are: randomness, epiphenomena and apophenia.

Firstly, I would like to talk a little about randomness. Randomness happens all around us, all the time, and we are hard-pressed to do anything about it. A “ready mind” for randomness has to have at its fore, a purpose, goal or end. Metaphorically-speaking, a pole star. A thing, however abstract or intangible, one can look to and hold to whilst all the randomness wheels by around them. At this level, the level of randomness, the individual can posit the truth of “correlation does not equal causation.” Nothing they see, from the birds in the sky to the colors of the cars going by, to the snippets of conversation they hear, mean anything. They are focused on the fore and on they go. Only when once someone seeks to draw a parallel or to infer a greater meaning to the randomness they feel can the phrase lose it’s “not” and become “correlation does equal causation”. Let’s back up a little.

The term “correlate” is an aggregate word means very simply “co-relate.” Where the prefix (“cor-”) couples with “relate” to show two things are interrelated and possibly dependent upon one another for existence, efficacy, etc. And the phrase “correlation does not equal causation” means just because one thing might happen alongside another, neither caused the other to arise. They are happening independently. This is, in fact, the meaning of “epiphenomenal” which we’ll explore in the second part of this.

Going back to the former idea, randomness is essentially chaos. Seeking to derive meaning, then, out of chaos, randomness, is pointless. Meaning, in this sense, ends up looking like the aforementioned “pole star.” Or at least a smaller version of it. Without any datum from which a deeper pattern and broader meaning arises, “life” continues to gallop along irrespective of the observers and interlocutors. No two pieces of information, happenstance, data, etc.—as, at least two pieces of data are required in order to introduce the idea of “correlation”—can be said to have given rise to each other as everything within the purview of the observer happens, appearing and receding with no first cause nor chief aim. The individual is fixated on the pole star and is not inferring anything from the phenomena. In randomness, the phrase “no correlation and no causation” can be said to apply.

I see this philosophical construct at work in my mind—all the time. Particularly when people-watching. I also see it when I interact with others. The bottomless depth of individuals (not necessarily a bad thing) is only known, in part, by the individual. I am finding more and more that I am incorrect in my assumptions about others and that I have no window on even the last moment of a person’s life with whom I am interacting, let alone their life as it stretches along behind them to its beginning, its progenitive influence.

I went shopping for shoes with my wife recently. We entered a shoe store, a new one anchoring a corner of our mall, milled around a little, and then exited. As summer is about over, all of this activity was done in and among many other shoppers who, it would seem, were there to shop for back-to-school. I inferred this but as I hadn’t asked any of our fellow footwear-perusers, I couldn’t know. All I did know—and I spoke this out loud, to her—was we weren’t there for that. We weren’t shopping for back-to-school. In our case, correlation—school begins in a month-and-a-half—did not equal causation.

Epiphenomenalism could, in one word, sum up the title idea. The very definition of the word means “something happening at the same time as something else.” The word “phenomenon” comes to us from Greek and then Latin and can be translated as “something coming into view.” The prefix (“epi-”) meaning “in addition to”. Going back to our “ready mind,” then, and taking a page from our title phrase, if one couples a lens for randomness with a willingness to see each piece of data or information as an epiphenomenon, the title phrase—Correlation does not equal causation—will prove true at each and every instance.

Going forward and on to the end, apophenia is a state of mind, more akin to a mental disorder, deriving meaning and significance from random, unrelated events and data. Apophenia has a “pole star”. And, typically, that pole star, that focal point is oneself. The individual in question doing the noticing and therefore the inferring.

Let’s look at an instance where “Correlation equals causation.”

When looking at an apple hanging off the branch of a tree (an apple tree), one may be curious as to its “cause”. Rewind six months to the pale white blossoms (of the same tree) and know the pollination of the same tree—as emblematized by the blossoms and instigated by bees—causes the production of fruit. Fruit could be said to be the “meaning” of a tree. This, however, is… an opinion. At best, one could say with no little certainty a tree simply is. Delicious fruit is a byproduct, if a cause for gratitude. But that’s a story for another day.

Apophenia is a spike, a frisson of desired outcome shoehorning any- and everything into its null point or event horizon. Apophenia bridges outcome with datum by creating meaning. While apophenia could be described as “lesser than the sum of its parts,” each part is inherently significant purely by virtue of its existence. The cure for apophenia is both a willingness to “let things be” and to have in one’s view, a focal point is greater than oneself. Remember: both stars and black holes generate gravity.

None of this is to say inferring an incorrect correlation, causation or even the application of the phrase to a moment or scenario is a slippery-slope to apophenia. Meaning exists. Searching for it, then, is a worthwhile, if noble, pursuit. Wholly valid and perhaps vital. That being said, the incorrect application of any element of the phrase, when repeated numerous times without checks and balances, may create a confirmation bias which will in turn be buttressed by geometrically-increased error.


Gibson's Internet of Things - A Précis on The Blue Ant Trilogy

Gibson's Internet of Things - A Précis on The Blue Ant Trilogy

Something Old, Something New