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cell phone self-portrait
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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Causal Arguments

Today I'm teaching a class about causal arguments ... creating a chain that shows how one thing caused another, which caused another, etc. Just now I was on Twitter, and someone wrote that he was on a bus. It made me think of Trisha Yearwood's "Bus to St. Cloud" (see below), which made me think of my friend David, who once dedicated the song to me ... and now I'm thinking I can use this song as a fun way to illustrate the causal chain.


On a bus to St. Cloud, Minnesota
I thought I saw you there
With the snow falling down around you
Like a silent prayer
And once on a street in New York City
With the jazz and the sin in the air
And once on a cold L.A. freeway
Going nowhere
And it's strange, but it's true
I was sure it was you
Just a face in the crowd
On a bus to St. Cloud

In a church in downtown New Orleans
I got down on my knees and prayed
And I wept in the arms of Jesus
For the choice you made
We were just gettin' to the good part
Just gettin' past the mystery
Oh, and it's just like you, it's just like you
To disagree
And it's strange but it's true
You just slipped out of view
Like a face in the crowd
On a bus to St. Cloud
And you chase me like a shadow
And you haunt me like a ghost
And I hate you some, and I love you some
But I miss you most...

On a bus to St. Cloud, Minnesota
I thought I saw you there
With the snow falling down around you
Like a silent prayer

The speaker's habit of seeing the old lover's face in a variety of places can be considered an example of immediate/remote causes. This is a concept that implies that every causal chain links backward indefinitely into the past. It appears that what triggers the reaction (the "seeing" or imagining of that old familiar face) is associated with something spiritual ("snow falling like a prayer, jazz and sin in the air, in a church in New Orleans, I got down on my knees and prayed, wept in the arms of Jesus for the choice you made) --- and there it is, the choice that the lover made. That, apparently, is the remote cause that still brings immediate reaction. By the way, if we are to break this down, is there evidence that the speaker is, in fact, addressing an old lover? Or could this be a friend or child or someone else?

We can also see in these circumstances an example of the fallacy of oversimplified cause: in other words, if we assume it was the lover's choice to leave that caused the failure of this relationship --- when in fact, there may have been a number of other precipitating/contributing factors (had it already failed before the lover left? did the failure, in fact, cause the leaving?) Was there preoccupation with their respective careers, disagreement about priorities, in-law problems, and so forth?)

Was there a constraint involved here? In other words, was there something in the way of the lover leaving that was suddenly removed? The presence of a constraint may keep a certain effect from occurring. For example, in a marriage, the presence of children in the home might be a constraint against divorce; as soon as the children graduate from high school or leave home, the marriage may dissolve.

Was there a necessary/sufficient cause? A necessary cause is one that has to be present for a given effect to occur. Did the lover suddenly leave because he finally saved up the bus fare? Lost his job? Got the courage? Found another lover?

All of these aspects of causal arguments can and should be considered if one is creating a causal argument that can stand up to examination.

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