What is Multiple Causation?
and how we explain the world
When we think about causality and, more specifically, when we talk about it in practice, we tend to make it out to be a simple thing. Something happened, Y, therefore some antecedent event or factor, X, must have preceded it which explains the occurrence of Y.
This very simplistic, basic account of causality is the one most of us employ on a regular basis. We treat everything as traceable to a primary cause.
If you are late to work or need the day off (Y), for instance, you identify a simple event or factor, X, to explain and make sense of your abnormal behavior, Y. You might explain your situation, Y, by pointing out that traffic was bad, or that you are ill, or your car broke down, or there is a family emergency, or…and once you identify the reason, X, suddenly a causal relationship exists between X and Y.
Using simple causal relations, we try to express the fundamental connectedness of things in very rudimentary form. Perhaps part of us is aware of the game we are playing. Perhaps we actually believe this simple account. Or perhaps we just can’t be bothered to really consider the complexities of existence in any meaningful way.
Most of us are distracted, stressed, lonely, and have enough on our minds in normal circumstances that we are unable to give adequate attention to the nuances of our experiences. No, for most of us the true complexities of the world are a curiosity, an oddity, and are given little if any thought.
Multiple causation is “the view that events, including behaviors, seldom result from single causes but instead from multiple causes working in complex combinations" (dictionary.apa.org). In short, multiple causation refers to an event, Y, not just having one cause, X, but multiple causes, (X, W, Z…N).
The idea of multiple causation draws attention to the fact that our normal view of causation offers an account that oversimplifies reality. The relationship between events in real life are hardly ever so straightforward that “X, then Y” adequately captures all the causal factors and relationships involved.
If I miss work, Y, because I am sick, X, there are likely other related, connected factors and events that play a causal role in my absence. For instance, I could determine the events that preceded my illness, X. What behavioral and physical factors explain the occurrence of X? Was I failing to take care of myself? Did I do something that increased my risk? Am I unable to eat healthy food because I do not earn enough? My explanation for my absence and, indeed, these additional questions only scratch the surface and do not provide an exhaustive account.
The fact is, everything that happens is interrelated and interconnected. Truly identifying all relevant causal factors for a given situation or event, Y, is perhaps impossible. We adopt a simplified, more or less straightforward system to explain events because it would be too difficult, time consuming, and would further cloud issues related to responsibility if we tried to offer a more detailed causal explanation that accounts for multiple causation.
We therefore do what we so often do—we simplify reality, make it manageable, and take our simplified version as truth. Doing so makes it possible to talk about the world without confusion or large expenditures of time.
Our simplistic account of causation also preserves our picture of accountability and responsibility. If my intention, X, leads to my act, Y, then I bear responsibility for Y. The very basic idea of causation we employ allows us to view ourselves as responsible actors in the world and makes it easy to identify, explain, and make sense of the reason why something, Y, occurred.
What’s interesting is that awareness of multiple causation suggests that the account of reality we accept is not complete and/or is an oversimplified, even false account. Nevertheless, we accept it because practical considerations make it worthwhile.
Given this, it is worth reflecting on what else about our account of reality, about the picture of the world we take for granted, is accurate and what, if anything, is simply a convenient fiction…
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