Cautious about Causation

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In the social sciences, one learns quickly (or is supposed to learn) that correlation does not equal causation.

I remember learning in driver’s training the scary statistic that most accidents happen within a few miles from home. The takeaway for us young drivers was obvious: People are careless when driving in familiar places, so be careful! But of course, this takeaway equates correlation (the number of accidents linked to the distance from home) with causation (we must drive worse because we are close to home), when a better explanation is that most of our driving naturally takes places within a few miles of home, so that’s where most of our accidents are bound to happen.

Just because two things are co-related does not mean one is the cause of the other or that the link between the two is clear or necessary.

No Straight Line

In 2001, David Powlison published a brilliant article entitled The Ambiguously Cured Soul. It was about a married woman named Amelia who struggled with lesbian fantasies. Through Christian counseling, Amelia “discovered” that her attraction to women was due to her past: Because she had an abusive father and a distant mother, Amelia was repelled by men and longed to find emotional connection with a woman. As helpful as the counseling may have been in one respect, Powlison argued that the causal narrative was misplaced. Any number of scenarios might have followed from Amelia’s upbringing. As Justin Taylor summarizes, “the counselee might live an immoral heterosexual lifestyle because of her longing for an intimate relationship with men; she might marry a man just like her dad because she’s drawn to that which hurt her; she might isolate herself from the world since she can trust no one; she has a godly marriage having determined to avoid her parents’ mistake.”

Of course, understanding our pasts can be useful in making sense of the present. But it’s a deterministic myth to think, “I had to turn out this way.” The fact of the matter is, there is no straight line whereby certain experiential inputs invariably lead to the same set of lifetime outputs.

What Hath Culture Wrought?

What’s true in counseling is true in tragedies too.

All of us in the Reformed world were shocked and saddened to learn that the alleged Ponway Synagogue shooter was “one of us,” a theologically minded young man who belonged to an OPC congregation. Without a doubt, this is an occasion to reflect on whether any of us have been soft on anti-Semitic hatred or if any of our churches are breeding grounds for murderous angst.

And yet, by all accounts, the parents and the pastor have said the right things and seem to be the sort of people that manifestly did not create a killer. If there is any causal link it is with the radicalization that happens in apocalyptic communities on message board sites like 8chan. Just because the shooter may have stolen evangelical language or Reformed theology to make his point does not mean the Christian faith is to blame any more than Jesus was to be blamed when his disciples wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans in order to defend his honor (Luke 8:51-55). The key is that Jesus rebuked them, and so must we when we see people under our care twist our teachings or when we witness their zeal turning to violence.

In our age of political polarization, we often hear accusations—on both sides—that Tragedy A was the result of a “culture of hate” or that Horrible Atrocity B was the product of “good people saying nothing.” I suppose those arguments can be true, but as a rule they are almost always so nebulous as to be unprovable and so universal as to be non-falsifiable. If millions of people in the same “culture” never act out in violent ways and a very, very, very small number do, how effective is the culture anyway?

Again, I’m not suggesting that families or religious communities or broader societal factors never play a role—and sometimes it can be shown that they play a significant role—but as a stand-alone argument, we should shy away from “the culture” as a causal explanation for much of anything. It’s unfortunate that some of the same academics who look for finely tuned, always qualified nuances in making arguments about the past are quick to make sweeping causal claims when it comes to analyzing the present.

It’s Complicated

Which brings me to a final point, and this may be the most controversial. I believe one of the impediments (and there are many!) in discussing racial issues in this country is that too many of us gravitate toward simplistic mono-causal explanations for amazingly complex phenomena. The uncomfortable fact is that there are wide disparities between blacks and whites when it comes to a host of well-being measurements, from standardized test scores to educational attainment to household income to rates of incarceration. If some are quick to explain these disparities based on merit and hard work, others are quick to assume that discrimination and white supremacy are to blame. I’ve always found the easy explanations to be unhelpful—unhelpful in understanding the present and unhelpful in making things better in the future. It’s not discounting the legacy of racism or the value of personal responsibility to argue that neither is a sufficient explanation (nor an irrelevant consideration) for why people have what they have and are what they are.

People are complicated, and history is complicated. We don’t do anyone any favors by pretending that people or the past can be understood and summed up in a single, unifying theory. Like you, I am—under God’s sovereignty—the product of genes and family and friends and schools and peers and churches and books and experiences and unspoken assumptions and unwritten rules and (for me, a lot of) undeserved opportunities and (for me, fewer) undeserved obstacles and a million personal choices along the way. All of us have reasons to be humble about what we have and are, and all of us have reasons to be cautious about our theories of causation.

Only God knows fully how all the pieces fit together. Only God knows how everything led to everything. Only God knows what complete cosmic justice looks like. This is no excuse for intellectual laziness. Some explanations are better than others. But it means we should not fall into the intellectually lazy, but rhetorically effective trap of thinking that people and problems of the present are simply the result of the perfect mix of ingredients from the past.

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