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Why I don't believe in cause and effect

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Does cause and effect really exist?
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I think because we have this storytelling function, we end up telling stories about the world, and so I think that the idea of cause and effect is actually not something that's really in the world. It's just a story we tell about the world. So if we take something in physics, like F=ma, we tend to think of a force as causing acceleration, but that equation can be rearranged. You could think of acceleration as causing mass, or mass as causing force. Mathematically, it's all the same. We think of it that way because we can create forces by pushing on something. And we can't create masses by willing something, so we tend to think of the force as the cause. So it's really just kind of a storytelling convention. So I believe actually all the stories we tell about the cause and effect of things are either false, if they are about real things in the physical world, or they're constructed if they're in things we engineer. So for instance on a computer, we deliberately construct electronic circuits that have... implement cause and effect. The input can affect the output, but the output really can't affect the input. And so we create something that is our fantasy of cause and effect, as in a logic gate. And then we connect all those together and we build these fantastic chains of causes and effect in computer programs and things like that. And so those things really do have cause and effect, because they were built to. It may be that evolution builds things with causes and effects for similar reasons, but I think mostly in physical systems, causes and effects are just something that we make up about a system in order to explain it. And in fact, probably complicated systems like economies or ecologies or maybe even brains aren't really explainable in those terms. And so it may be that trying to understand those things in the same sense that we understand a computer circuit may just be impossible.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: cause, effect, storytelling, fantasy

Duration: 2 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017