Editor’s note: The following are chapters 3, 4, and 5 of Betsy Speicher’s book The WHYS Way to Success and Happiness (CreateSpace, 2015). The later chapters (6–15) apply causal reasoning to various pursuits, from understanding emotions, to improving memory, to persuading people, to raising children. Because the excerpts below are from a published book, they have not been edited by TOS. The WHYS Way is available in Kindle, paperback, and Audible formats through Amazon.com.
What Are Causes?
Causes Are Everywhere
Whenever you ask “Why?” you’re looking for a cause. If you want to know why your friend is late, it means you’re looking for whatever caused him to not show up on time. Maybe he was stuck in traffic, lost track of time, forgot the event, etc.
Whenever you use the word “because,” whatever follows that word is a causal explanation as to why something happened. If someone says “I bought my Corvette at Heartland Chevrolet because they gave me the best price,” it means that the price was what caused him to purchase the car at that dealership.
If you ask “How?” you’re also seeking a cause. “How?” means “What will cause this to happen?” and the answer to a “How?” question is always a cause.
For example, there’s the old joke about a young man who asks an elderly man for directions: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The old man replies “Practice! Practice!” The answer the young man was expecting and the one he got were causal. He wanted routing directions that would cause him to arrive at Carnegie Hall and the old man gave him advice that would cause him to be good enough to perform there.
If you think about it, causes are implicit in every statement you make and every sentence you utter. A sentence is about something—that’s the subject of the sentence—and what that something is or does—which is the predicate of the sentence. Contained in the sentence is the idea that there’s something about the subject that causes the predicate.
The statement “Jerry’s car wouldn’t start” means that there was something about Jerry’s car (the subject) that caused it not to start (the predicate)—such as, perhaps, a dead battery. The generalization “All men are mortal” contains the idea that there is something about all men (the subject) that causes them to be mortal (the predicate).
Thus, if you want to understand the relationship between something (the subject) and what it is or does (the predicate), you need to understand cause and effect. If you want to prove or, sometimes, just make sense out of a statement, you need to be aware of causes.
What Causes Really Are
We’ve seen that causes may not be just one thing happening before another or things that always go together or actions and reactions, so what are they?
Set your old assumptions aside for a while and let’s look at causality in a new way. Instead of connections and reactions, The WHYS Way focuses on three things:
(1) What you want to know and do
(2) The things you want to understand and use
(3) The characteristics of things
Those are your keys to understanding causes.
An Elementary Example
Imagine that we have a red wooden ball that’s about three inches in diameter. Why does it roll when you push it? Why does it fit inside a square box that’s four inches on each side? Why does it float on water? Why does it remind you of an apple?
Observe all the effects involving the little red ball: rolling, fitting, floating, etc. Each result is caused by the same object, but they’re all different effects. Why is that? Let’s answer the “Whys?” above and see.
The ball rolls because it’s round. If it were shaped like a cube, it wouldn’t. It fits inside the box because it’s three inches in diameter. If the ball were five inches, all other things being equal, it wouldn’t fit inside a four-inch box. It floats because it’s made of wood. A similar cast-iron ball would sink. It reminds you of an apple because it has the same visual characteristics—the same color, general shape, and size—as an apple.
Those are the specific characteristics of that ball—something different in each case—that account for and cause each particular effect. The ball rolls because it’s round, but not because it’s red. The size is important for fitting in the bigger box or making you think of an apple, but not for explaining why it floats.
For each specific effect, there is something about the ball that causes that effect.
What is true of the ball applies to all cause-and-effect relationships. There is always:
1. A thing. There is always something that acts or changes. In our example, the thing that acts or changes is the ball. It acts by rolling or floating or changing its position from outside to inside the box or by changing your thoughts from not thinking of an apple to thinking of an apple.
2. Its causal characteristics. There is always something about that thing that makes it or allows it to act or change. In our ball example, depending on the particular effect we want to explain, it might be the shape of the ball, what it’s made of, its size, its color, etc. A causal characteristic might be anything about a thing—any property or characteristic of that thing—which it must have in order to produce a specific effect.
(To keep it simple, from here on we will use the word “Purpose,” with a capital “P,” whenever we mean a purpose for knowing or what it is that you want to know or do. Likewise, we will use “Thing” to refer to the thing that acts or changes, and “Characteristic” for a causal characteristic.)
In principle: The cause of any given effect is the characteristics of things.
That’s the basic idea behind causes and, as we shall see, it’s The WHYS Way’s answer to every “Why?” or “How?” question. Why does the ball roll? Because it’s a round (Characteristic) object (Thing). How does it float? It (the Thing) is made of wood (Characteristic).
If you want to know what the cause of something is, focus on the Characteristics of the Things that act or change. Ask, “What Characteristics of this Thing are the cause of this effect?”
Here are some more causes explained in terms of Things and Characteristics:
Characteristics—It needs an external source of power and it’s not plugged in.
Effect—When you turn the TV on, you don’t get any sound or picture.
Characteristics—It had extremely strong winds and it touched down on Third Street.
Effect—Homes were destroyed on Third Street.
Characteristics—She went on a Caribbean cruise and paid for it with her credit card.
Effect—She maxed out her credit card.
That’s all there is to it. Just look at what things are and what they do. Understanding causes is simply a matter of identifying which things are acting, changing, or being explained—the Things—and which of their attributes and properties—their Characteristics—account for their actions, changes, or condition.
While the Thing-Characteristic view of causes is a very simple idea, some might say it’s too simple. Let’s look at their objections and how to answer them.
We just identified that the ball rolls because it’s round and that definitely is a Characteristic, because the ball has to be round in order to roll. But just being round isn’t enough because there are other Characteristics involved. The ball also rolls because it’s made of wood. If it were made out of a non-solid material like jelly or if it were a ball of absorbent cotton, it wouldn’t roll. If you want to get really picky about it, you can find additional Characteristics like the fact that the ball’s temperature is below the point at which wood burns.
But generally, when answering the question, “Why does the ball roll?” we are satisfied with the answer: “Because it’s round.” Although we might consider additional Characteristics, we usually don’t. We just focus on some Characteristics and ignore others. There’s a reason for that, which we’ll discuss shortly.
What makes understanding causes really difficult is that there are almost always several Things interacting with each other.
If you push the ball it will roll but, if there is no outside force acting on the ball to overcome its inertia, it will just sit there. If so, rolling will require an additional Thing—in this case maybe you—with the Characteristic of being able to generate the needed force to push the ball enough to get it rolling.
The ball and something to push it are not the only Things required for it to roll. One reason our little red ball rolls on the floor is that the floor is also a Thing. The ball’s rolling is an interaction with the floor, and the properties of the floor matter too. The floor has a hard, flat, level surface, but what would happen if the floor had holes in it or if it were covered in six inches of soft sand? Would the ball roll? Probably not.
But in most cases, if you want to explain why the ball rolls, pointing to the ball and what pushes it is enough even though other Things, like the floor, may be involved. By so doing, you only identify some Things and not others, and there is a good reason why you do that.
Causes of Causes
Once you know the Things and what their Characteristics are, are you done? Maybe or maybe not. Causes have causes, too. Why is the ball round? Why did you push it? Why do you have the ability to push things? Everything in the universe has a cause, including Things and Characteristics. You could keep on going forever—but you don’t. Why?
When Do You Stop?
When you ask “Why?” you can stop when you get an answer that satisfies your Purpose.
A satisfactory answer to “Why does the ball roll?” depends on why you want to know it. For example, let’s look at Joey, a toddler who wanted to find an object he could easily propel across the floor.
He tried pushing his teddy bear and some blocks and some balls. He decided that the balls work best because, when he pushed them, they went farther and faster. Joey also tried rolling a soup can and discovered that it rolled on the sides but not on the flat top and bottom. That’s when he realized that the roundness is necessary for rolling. At that point he stopped asking “Why?” because he had what he wanted: roundness, the Characteristic that caused an object (Thing) to be easy to push across the floor.
Although being solid is also a Characteristic of the balls that rolled, Joey disregarded that characteristic because his blocks were also solid and, when pushed, they didn’t go as fast and as far as the ball. Because he wanted to know what makes objects move easily when pushed, and being solid didn’t distinguish the objects that did from those that didn’t, he ignored the characteristic of being solid because it was irrelevant to his Purpose.
Once you find a cause, you always have the option of continuing to look for the cause of that cause and that cause’s cause etc., forever—but you don’t. For one thing, life is too short. We have to stop somewhere. When can you stop looking for causes?
Just as a person’s Purpose sets a limit for finding Characteristics, it also determines when he stops looking for the causes of causes. When Jerry from our previous example found out why his car didn’t start, he got it jump-started and was on his way, but he also wanted to know what caused the dead battery. Since he was able to jump-start it, the battery still had some life and he didn’t need a new one, but as soon as the car started, he realized he had left his headlights on overnight. Because that explained why his car didn’t start, his Purpose was satisfied.
Thus, whenever you ask “Why?” or “How?” you’re seeking a cause and you can stop looking when you identify the causes that satisfy the Purpose of your question. To find a cause, you just have to find the right Things and Characteristics.
Looking at cause and effect The WHYS Way avoids many of the problems with the before-after, correlation, and action-reaction views of causality. There’s no mysterious, unperceivable “necessary connection” to find, and no confusion about what caused what. You just look at what happens and ask “What Characteristics of what Things made it happen?” Then you use your five senses to look at and investigate Things and their Characteristics until you find the ones that satisfy your Purpose.
Now how do you do that?
How Do You Find a Cause?
What do you do when you don’t know what caused something or when you can’t predict what effects will happen? You figure it out using The WHYS Way’s three main concepts: Purpose, Thing, and Characteristic.
A Causal Quest
When Detective Logan arrived at the crime scene, he found a body lying in a pool of blood. He saw the corpse: Nelson Winterbourne, a middle-aged businessman, shot in the back five times. Logan needed to find out whodunit—the person who caused the death.
Logan observed the dead body, its condition, and its location. He noted the room and its contents and the open window leading to the fire escape. He looked for, but didn’t find, any sign of the murder weapon in the room.
From the position of the body and the bloodstains, Logan concluded that the body hadn’t been moved. The victim was in the room when he was shot and then fell close to where they found his body. The bullet wounds indicated that he was shot at close range. That meant that the killer had been in the room too, but how did he get there? The apartment door was locked and there were no signs of forced entry. Did Winterbourne know the killer and let him in?
Logan asked the doorman if anyone had called on the victim. That’s when he learned that the building had security cameras focused on the hallway outside the apartment and tapes for the last forty-eight hours. They showed Winterbourne coming and going, but no one else.
Then Logan turned his attention to the fire escape window. It was wide open—rather odd for such a cold day—and just right for a stealthy entrance or quick exit. Logan called his assistant over. “Dust this whole area for prints, Max. See this nail sticking out of the window frame? There seems to be something caught on it. Let’s take that to the lab and see if they can find some fibers and, if we really luck out, some DNA.” Under the fire escape, they found a gun and Max carefully put it in a Baggie.
A woman across Fifth Street reported seeing a man in a big black coat and a red baseball cap on the fire escape around the time of the murder. About ten minutes later when she was out walking her dog, she caught a glimpse of the same man heading north toward Allen Street.
A few days later the ballistics lab reported that the gun they found was, indeed, the murder weapon, and that it was registered to Winterbourne’s business partner, Sherman Wilson. Emails to Wilson found on Winterbourne’s computer expressed concern about large checks from the company’s checking account written to unknown companies. The checks appeared to have been signed by both partners, but Winterbourne’s signature was forged. Winterbourne demanded that Wilson return the funds or he would file charges with the district attorney.
Fibers found on the nail matched a black coat with a torn left sleeve in Wilson’s office closet, where they also found a red baseball cap. Wilson was arrested and charged with murder.
Analyzing the Cause-Finding Process
The way Logan went about finding the murderer is a good example of how to find a cause and it was essentially the same process used by Joey, the toddler in our last chapter, who was trying to figure out why he could push a ball clear across the floor with very little effort.
Using these two examples, we’re going to analyze the cause-finding process in detail—in simple, obvious detail—to highlight the steps to successfully finding causes using The WHYS Way. You may think you already know how to do it, and you’re probably right. After all, you find causes every day.
To the degree you succeed, you’re probably already using The WHYS Way, but doing it automatically and “intuitively,” without ever thinking about or understanding the process you’re using. Our goal here is to make the process conscious so that you can control it and do it correctly, consistently, and more easily.
For instance, we all know that balls roll because they’re round. It may seem to you that you always knew it but, in fact, you didn’t. Children aren’t born knowing that, but they learn it very early in life. If you watch a toddler playing with blocks and balls on the floor, especially the first time that he’s ever done it, you’ll notice he spends a lot of time rolling and pushing things, over and over. What is he doing? We’re going to watch toddler Joey and analyze the process he goes through. Then we’ll see how it’s similar to what Logan did to find the murderer.
Later on in this book, you’ll see that we’re now illustrating exactly the same process that you need to solve your problems at work, make plans, and reach your goals, so hang in there. Once you get through these theoretical discussions and understand The WHYS Way for finding causes, you’ll be able to apply them to the important practical issues of your own life.
Purposes, Things, and Characteristics
The keys to understanding the process of cause finding are the three concepts we’ve already defined and discussed: Purpose, Thing, and Characteristic. Let’s see how they apply to what Logan and Joey did to find their respective causes.
The starting point in cause finding is always having a Purpose—a motivation to know something specific—and Logan and Joey both wanted to know what caused something.
Detective Logan wanted to find out “whodunit.” The murderer he was looking for was the (causal) Thing—something that acts or changes to produce the effect—poor, dead Mr. Winterbourne. Joey wanted to know why he could easily push balls across the floor, but not his blocks or his teddy bear. He was looking for the Characteristics that make some things move better than other things. Having their respective Purposes, Logan and Joey were well on their way.
Why is having a Purpose necessary for finding a cause? When you go on a trip, you have a destination. If you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t get there. Having a destination points you in the right direction and determines the route you’ll take. Similarly, your Purpose will set the goal of your thinking and guide the process of finding your answers.
Most importantly, having a Purpose is like putting gas in your car. It provides the fuel to get you where you’re going. A Purpose—the desire to know something—is an emotion and, like all emotions, it impels you to do something and gives you energy to do it. Without the fuel of a Purpose, Logan wouldn’t care enough to investigate the crime and Joey might just forget about finding out why balls roll, and take a nap instead.
What Is Known
Logan and Joey had their Purposes but, at first, there were important questions that remained to be answered before they could find the causes they were seeking. They didn’t yet know all the necessary Things and Characteristics—but they did have some of them.
Assessing the crime scene, Logan could see the dead body, its condition, and location, the room and its contents, and the open window leading to the fire escape. Joey had his blocks, balls, and teddy bear. As he pushed them, he observed that the balls moved easily across the floor, but the blocks and teddy bear didn’t.
What Is Not Known
Logan didn’t yet know who the murderer was and Joey saw that the balls rolled and blocks didn’t but he didn’t know why. Logan was looking for the murderer—the Thing—while Joey wanted to know what it is about the balls—the Characteristics—that made the balls roll when the blocks didn’t. Both of our cause-seekers needed to get more information, but not just any kind of information.
Looking for Clues
Logan was looking for clues, but what is a clue? If we look at Logan’s clues, we’ll see that each one was causally related to the killer he is seeking. Some clues, like fingerprints and DNA, were Characteristics of the murderer. Some were effects that the killer caused like the bullet wounds indicating a shooting at close range and his image—or lack of same—on the security tapes. The gun that shot Winterbourne was a Thing and its Characteristics, like the bullets it used or where and when it was purchased, were causally related to, and could be traced back to, the killer.
Seeking Things and Characteristics
As Logan conducted his investigation of the crime scene, he paid attention to some things and some of their characteristics but not others. He examined Winterbourne’s wounds, but not his shoes. He inquired about possible visitors on the day of the crime but not about the people who had come and gone twenty years ago. Why?
Logan’s Purpose set his agenda. His attention was directed by his goal—finding out whodunit—and that ruled out anything that wasn’t causally related to the crime and the person who committed it. He ignored the victim’s shoes, but maybe he wouldn’t have if the circumstances were different. What if the victim wore pink shoelaces and there was a serial killer on the loose who only killed people wearing pink shoelaces? Then the shoes might have been causally relevant to who the killer was.
Joey, after observing that the red ball rolled and the blue ball rolled, but the red block didn’t, ignored the colors of the objects and concentrated on their other properties. The standard for what Joey focused on and what he didn’t was, here again, set by his Purpose.
Regardless of your question, if it involves a cause, you already have the answer—or at least the formula for your answer. Since effects are caused by the Characteristics of Things, if you know what all the relevant Things and Characteristics are, you’ll have your cause. The answer to your question will always be in the form: “This effect was (or will be) caused by these Characteristics of these Things.”
While that’s true in general, how does it help you answer your specific question? When you don’t know one or more of the effects, Characteristics, or Things, how can you even begin to think about what you don’t know yet?
In math, when you have a formula but don’t know the values of all the variables, you use letters like “x” and “y” to stand for the unknown values. When you want to know a cause but have unknowns, you do the same thing. You use “placeholders” to stand for the missing effects, Things, and/or Characteristics.
When Detective Logan said, “Somebody shot Winterbourne,” the word “somebody” was a placeholder standing for the as yet unknown killer and “shot Winterbourne” was a known Characteristic of the murderer. By using the placeholder “somebody,” Logan could express the cause-effect relationship in a simple sentence that was easy to hold in his mind and think about.
Other placeholders we use every day are “someone” or “something” for unknown Things, “something about” for unknown Characteristics, and “somehow” for unknown causes.
“Someone (an unknown human Thing) left the cap off the toothpaste.”
“Something (an unknown Thing) really stinks in here.”
“Something about (an unknown Characteristic of) his sales pitch sounds too good to be true.”
“Somehow (an unknown cause) he got an “A” in history without ever reading the textbook.”
While these “some” words are the usual placeholders, you can use any crazy thing that stands for an unknown Thing, Characteristic, cause, or effect. In his book Secrets from an Inventor’s Notebook, Maurice Kanbar describes how he and his partner, Al Kolvites, come up with their inventions using their own unique placeholder.
In the early stages of your product development, after you’ve pinpointed a problem and while you are brainstorming solutions, you might use a stand-in substance. Al calls it “nonexisteum.” Nonexisteum is infinitely light, infinitely strong and costs nothing. With it, you are free to be very creative and your plans proceed beautifully. But at some point you have to get real and find an existing substance that will meet your designs’ demands. What kind of adhesive will withstand high temperatures? Which materials resist rust? What kind of fastener will keep manufacturing costs down? What will make this game safe for children? That’s when it helps to know how things are made and how they work.1
Observe that Kanbar begins by naming “nonexisteum” as the Thing that solves his problem. Once he has that, he can focus on his Purpose (inventing a new adhesive, material, fastener, or children’s game) and the Characteristics of his as yet unknown Thing (withstanding high temperatures, resisting rust, low cost, or safety).
Once you’re clear about your Purpose and what Things, Characteristics, causes, and/or effects you’re looking for, your next step is making a guess about what the missing “somethings” and “somehows” might be. This is what scientists call “hypothesizing,” but what it really boils down to is intelligent guessing. A proper hypothesis is a guess that includes all the information you already have and contradicts none of it.
Why did Joey’s balls roll? He could have guessed that the shape had something to do with it because all his balls looked the same, shape-wise, and they all rolled. A bad guess would be that a relevant Characteristic was being red. Joey’s red ball rolled, but so did his blue one, so saying something had to be red to roll contradicted a fact Joey already knew.
Who killed Winterbourne? Logan guessed at the killer’s Characteristics and assumed it was someone who had entered and exited through the window, used the gun found underneath the fire escape, and had a motive for killing the victim. A bad guess would be that Winterbourne committed suicide, since shooting yourself in the back five times is rather hard to do.
How do you come up with a good guess about what the missing placeholders might be?
Isolating Characteristics from Things
If you know at least one Thing related to the effect you want to understand, it means that it necessarily has some characteristics or properties that caused the effect. In other words, some characteristics of that particular thing are causal Characteristics, so take a close look at the thing and pay attention to its characteristics. Ask yourself which of those might be required to cause the effect.
Joey already knew that balls are Things that roll, but what about them—what Characteristics—made them do that? He observed some of their attributes: their size, shape, color, weight, location, smell, etc. He guessed that it might be the shape.
Logan was also guided by his observations and what he already knew when he hypothesized about what the murderer’s Characteristics might be. The killer had the Characteristics of being in the room at the time of the crime, not entering through the front door, and not being able to walk through walls, so it was a good guess that he entered through the open fire escape window.
He guessed that the gun they found under the fire escape was the murder weapon because it was so close to the probable escape route and it’s rare to find a gun just left lying on the sidewalk. If that was the gun used in the murder, it would have to have certain Characteristics such as being able to shoot bullets of the same caliber as the ones found in Winterbourne’s body. When it shot those bullets, there would be marks on the bullet casings that were unique to the gun that fired it. Would they match the markings of the bullets in the body?
Was the killing an accident? Hardly. If someone had been shot once it might have been an accident, but five times? No way! That meant that one of the murderer’s Characteristics was that he had a motive for shooting the victim.
So all of Logan’s guesses and assumptions were based on Characteristics he knew the killer possessed.
Comparing Characteristics of Different Things
One way to come up with a good guess as to what the Characteristics might be is to compare different, but similar, things. Do the Things that act or change in the way you want to explain have any common characteristics? Do the things that don’t act that way lack those same characteristics? If so, one or more of those common characteristics are likely to be the necessary Characteristics you’re looking for.
In Joey’s case, he wanted to know why some things rolled and some things didn’t so he compared a little red and a big blue ball (same shape, different color and size) with each other, a red ball with a red block (same color and size, different shape), and a ball (always rolls) with a soup can (rolls on the label side but not on the top and bottom).
Once you have a good guess as to what the Things and/or Characteristics you seek might be, your next step is to test your hypothesis and see what happens. A Reality Test is a process of using similar things keeping as many things and characteristics the same except for the things or characteristics you think might cause the effect. If you do that, then whether or not the effect happens is a good test of whether you chose the right thing or characteristic.
Let’s see what Joey did and what he was thinking. We’ll watch as he compares things and their characteristics, observes similarities and differences, makes guesses, performs Reality Tests on his guesses, and finally discovers why balls roll.
He pushes a little red ball.
Wow! That thing really moves! What else can I push?
He pushes a little red block.
That wasn’t as much fun. It hardly moved. How come? What’s different? They’re the same size, so that’s not it. They’re the same color, so that’s not it. They’re not the same shape. Maybe that’s it. I’ll push something else. What else looks like this ball?
He pushes a big blue ball.
This rolls too! It’s bigger than the little red ball, but it rolls. It’s blue, not red, but it still rolls. I guess the size and color don’t matter. Is it the ball shape? Does anything else roll that’s not ball-shaped? How about this soup can?
He tries to roll a soup can.
It rolls on the side with the label. It doesn’t roll on the top or the bottom. Why?
He looks at the top of the soup can, picks up a block, and compares the two.
The can is flat on the top and bottom. It doesn’t roll on the top or bottom. The block is flat on all sides. It doesn’t roll on any side. The can does roll, but where it’s “not-flat.” Are balls flat anywhere?
He inspects the two balls.
They’re “not-flat” everywhere! Round means not-flat. Round things roll. Flat things don’t roll. Round things roll because they’re “not-flat.” Balls roll because they’re “not-flat”—or round—everywhere.
He looks for and tries rolling other flat and round things just to see if it always happens.
Joey has learned, not only that balls roll, but why they roll. That might seem rather obvious and trivial, but it’s knowledge Joey will use many times in his life: at seven when he learns how to bowl, at eighteen when he gets a flat tire, and at thirty-two when he sits on the floor with Joey Jr. and shows him how to roll balls and soup cans.
What Joey did is, in principle, exactly what scientists do. They seek causes, make guesses (hypothesize) as to what the causes might be, and then Reality Test their guesses by running experiments.
When scientists run an experiment, they compare things that have the properties they think might be necessary Characteristics with others that are the same except that they don’t have those properties. For instance, they may give pills with a new medicine to one group of patients and similar pills without the medicine to a similar group of patients to see if the medicine makes any difference.
How to Find Causes Step-by-Step
Here it is, as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
1. Have a clear Purpose.
The most common reason people fail to find causes is that they don’t have, or are unclear about, what their Purpose is. That’s why, if your thinking is muddled, confused, or going nowhere, defining your Purpose is your first order of business.
Since having a Purpose means wanting to find out something you don’t already know, the best way to state that fact clearly is in the form of a question.
“Who killed Winterbourne?”
“Why do the balls roll and the blocks don’t?”
“What is the best way to get to Chicago?”
“Where can I find a good doctor?”
“How can I afford a new car?”
“When should I leave to avoid rush-hour traffic?”
Once you state your Purpose in one simple question, it will clarify and focus your thinking and set you up for the next steps in answering your question.
2. Identify what you know.
If something happened you can’t explain, start with what you already know. You know that it happened. You know what things it happened with or to and these could be Things. Examine their characteristics because whatever properties you can identify might be Characteristics.
If your goal is to make something specific happen, you know a great deal about what you want to occur in the future and the Things and Characteristics that might be involved even if you don’t know how to do it yet. Note what the known things are.
3. Use placeholders for what you don’t know.
State the answer to your question using placeholders for what you don’t know.
“Somebody killed Winterbourne.”
“Something about the balls makes them roll.”
“Some way is the best way to get to Chicago.”
“Somewhere I can find a good doctor.”
“Somehow I can afford a new car.”
“I should leave sometime before the rush hour.”
Make an intelligent guess as to what the unknown Things and/or Characteristics might be, using what you already know.
5. Reality Test.
Test similar things, some which have the property you think might be a Characteristic and some which lack that particular property, to see if the effect still happens. If you find that something is a Thing that causes the effect, check to see if similar things have the same effect.
That’s the general order of what you do to find a cause, but you may not go straight through from Step 1 to Step 5. If your hypothesis fails to pass the Reality Test in Step 5, you’ll have to go back to Step 4 and come up with a new guess. If you find that you don’t even know enough to make a good guess, then you need to go back to Step 2 and gather more information.
If all goes well, you’ll eventually find the cause you’re looking for. When you do, can you really be sure you’ve got it? Sometimes. You’ll see when and how in the next chapter.
Are You Sure You Know the Cause?
Once you come to a conclusion or think you know something, how sure are you? How sure do you need to be? If you’ve decided you might like seeing a certain movie and it turns out to be awful, the worst thing that happens is that you’ve wasted a little time and money. But if it involves something serious like investing your life savings or getting married, it matters a lot. With the important issues in your life, you not only need to have a pretty good idea about what to do, but you need to be as certain as you can be that you’re getting it right. Sometimes, it’s a matter of life and death.
“All the prosecution has is circumstantial evidence,” defense attorney Terry Payson told the jury when Sherman Wilson was brought to trial for the murder of Nelson Winterbourne. “Wilson was framed.”
Payson recalled the prosecution’s handwriting expert to the stand.
“You’ve testified that Winterbourne’s signature was forged on these checks. Since they are in such large amounts, they also had to be signed by Mr. Wilson. What did you conclude about Wilson’s signature?”
“They’re forgeries too.”
Payson called the bookkeeper, Mona Haynes, as his next witness.
“You were employed by Winterbourne & Wilson?”
“For eighteen years,” she replied.
“You set up the books and had access to all the customer accounts?”
“Do you have a key to Mr. Wilson’s office?”
“Of course. He travels a lot and keeps valuable things in there. When he’s away and I need something, I just go in and get it.”
Payson nodded and smiled. “He trusted you.” Drawing closer, he casually asked, “So what were you doing on Winterbourne’s fire escape the night of the murder?”
Payson then entered into evidence a security video taken about the time of the murder from the bank at the corner of Allen and Fifth Street. It showed a slender female taking off a big dark coat and a baseball cap, putting them into the trunk of a Ford sedan, and driving away.
Payson presented close-ups of the person taking off the coat and cap to the jury. “Sure looks like you, Ms. Haynes. And you own a Ford sedan?”
“That wasn’t me!”
“I would like to enter into evidence this close-up of the license plate of the car driving away from the bank. Is that your license plate Ms. Haynes?”
“I don’t have to answer that.”
“The murderer was wearing Mr. Wilson’s coat and hat, and used the gun he kept in his desk at work, but drove your car, and has your face. How do you explain that?”
“I don’t have to answer. I want a lawyer.”
“The defense rests.”
The Wrong Cause
If the prosecution thought they had a good case against Sherman Wilson, they were wrong—but that’s not unusual. Mistakes and errors happen to us all the time. A homeowner may think he knows how to replace a faucet but, instead, he causes a flood and has to call in a plumber to rescue him. Two friends disagree about something and each one is so sure that they make a sizable bet about it—and one of them loses.
Then again, a person can actually come to the right conclusion, but if he isn’t sure he’s right, he won’t have the confidence to act on it. A young man who’s afraid he might be wrong may not invest in the stock that could make him a millionaire or propose to the woman of his dreams.
Knowing if you’re right or wrong can be a big deal. So is being able to tell the difference between being absolutely, dead-bang certain and having a strong gut feel that something is probably true, but not being totally sure about it. What you need is a Certainty Test to determine if you’re right and, fortunately, there is one, but let’s begin by asking why people get things wrong.
The Wrong View of Causality
People often get cause and effect wrong, because they have a wrong view of causality. They assume it means one thing happening after another or the correlation of two things that always seem to happen together. Here are some examples of flawed reasoning based on correlations and see why, if you understand causes in terms of the Characteristics of Things, you won’t make those particular mistakes.
With a decrease in the wearing of hats, there has been an increase in gasoline consumption over the same period.
Conclusion: Gasoline consumption is caused by people abandoning the practice of wearing hats.
There aren’t any Characteristics of hats (the Things) that cause an increase in gasoline sales.
As ice cream sales increase, the rate of drowning deaths increases sharply.
Conclusion: Ice cream consumption causes drowning.
What Characteristics of ice cream cause drowning? None. Does the increase in ice cream consumption have any Characteristics in common with swimmers drowning? They both happen in the summer. Why? Both eating ice cream and swimming are things people do to cope with summer heat.
The more firemen fighting a fire, the bigger the fire is observed to be.
Conclusion: Firemen cause an increase in the size of a fire.
What Characteristics of firemen (the Things) make the fire bigger? There aren’t any. If you then switch it around, you’ll see that a big fire (the Thing) has the Characteristic of requiring more firemen to put it out.
If you study the Things and Characteristics that are relevant to your Purpose, you’ll learn a lot about what probably caused the effect you want to understand. Do you know enough to be sure? Maybe not.
You may know which Things act or change and what some of their Characteristics are, but even if you know that those Characteristics have always been present when the effect occurs, is that all you need to know to conclude that they’re the Things and Characteristics you want? No, because correlation isn’t causation.
Even if you do know for sure that something is a Characteristic—like a Thing has to be round to roll—all that means is that the Characteristic is necessary, but not that it’s sufficient. If it’s not round it won’t roll, but just being round doesn’t mean that it will. It won’t roll if it’s made of a non-solid material or you’re trying to roll it on the wrong kind of surface. There may be additional Characteristics and Things required that you don’t know about yet.
Sometimes you know the Characteristics, but there’s not enough information to identify the Thing. Logan was sure that the murderer used the fire escape and the gun they found was the murder weapon. He had a good guess as to the identity of the killer, but he still didn’t have enough evidence to be certain, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Wilson did it.
When It Can’t Be True
The sure sign you made a mistake is when you end up with a contradiction. It might be that you suppose something exists that doesn’t like when you think you have enough eggs to make a pound cake and you open the refrigerator to find only one egg. What you see contradicts what you thought was there.
What is a contradiction? Aristotle’s Law of Non-Contradiction states: “It is impossible that the same thing belong and not belong to the same thing at the same time and in the same respect.”2 Putting that into Thing/Characteristic language, it means that a Thing cannot both have and not have the same Characteristic at the same time and in the same respect. Your fridge cannot, at the same point in time, both contain and not contain enough eggs to make a pound cake.
There’s a contradiction when what someone thinks, or supposes, or expects doesn’t match the way things are in the real world. If a carpenter thinks he cut the shelf to exactly the right length, but it doesn’t fit, he made a mistake. If a traveler goes south to reach a destination that’s actually to the north, he won’t get there because he’s going in the wrong direction.
The Error Test is: If you find a contradiction, you can be sure there is an error.
Applying the Error Test to the murder case, if Wilson was on the fire escape, wearing a black coat and a red baseball cap, and went north toward Fifth and Allen Street, then the person who arrived there soon after in that coat and cap should have looked like Wilson—but she didn’t. She looked like the bookkeeper instead—which contradicted the prosecution’s allegation.
It Is or It Isn’t
In the real world there aren’t any contradictions. Everything is what it is and isn’t what it isn’t. Things have the Characteristics that they have and not the Characteristics they don’t have—and that’s all. There is no in-between having and not having a particular Characteristic. That was Aristotle’s Law of Excluded Middle.3
But is that right? You can probably think of plenty of “middles.” Something may be black or white and, then again, it might be gray. Someone could be tall or short or in between those extremes and just be average in height. That’s not a problem.
In the black-white-gray example, Aristotle would say that something is either black or not-black, white or not-white. The gray would be both not-white and not-black until it got so dark that you’d have to call it black or so light that it would be white. Black, white, and gray mean ranges of a characteristic. For those Characteristics that denote ranges, the Characteristic is either within the range or it’s not within that range. There is no other “middle” possibility.
If you understand that contradictions cannot exist (the Law of Non-Contradiction) and that a Thing either has or doesn’t have a given Characteristic (the Law of Excluded Middle), that will lead you to knowing when something is true and has to be true.
When It Has to Be True
If we find a contradiction in someone’s thinking, it means he made an error. He believed that a Thing had a Characteristic it really didn’t have. The truth would be to state that the Thing has a Characteristic that it actually does have.
The way Aristotle put it is: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false . . .” In other words, if you have a contradiction, then you know it’s false. He continued “while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true . . .”4 That means that if you say that something is what it is or isn’t what it isn’t, then your statement has to be true.
It’s true that something is what it is and has to be what it is, otherwise it would be a contradiction. It has to be true because it cannot be otherwise. That’s the Law of Identity: that things are what they are and A is A. It’s true that the light is on if the light is on or that if something is not a circle, it’s not a circle.
So what? Any statement in the form “A is A” is trivially true. The really interesting statements—the ones that philosophers have been arguing about for centuries—are in the form “A is B” like “All men are mortal.” How can you know and be sure that this is true? By looking at the WHYS.
Why a Statement Is True
Why are all men mortal? Why do men die?
We know that all men have certain biological characteristics in common with all other men (and all higher animals). We are composed of cells which can die, malfunction, become infected, or turn cancerous. Our bodies consist of complex interrelated systems—circulatory, respiratory, neurological, endocrine, etc.—and these have vital, irreplaceable components like the heart, lungs, brain, etc. If any of these systems fail or their key components malfunction, a man will die. Sooner or later, even if we can avoid accidents and survive diseases, some vital organs will fail because they wear out with time and use.
Observe that the answer to “Why do men die?”—as it is for all causes—is found by identifying the relevant Things and Characteristics. In this case, the Things are the human body and its vital organs and their Characteristics are that, over time, they wear out and can no longer function properly and keep the body alive. All men (who have bodies that eventually wear out, malfunction, and cannot keep them alive) are mortal (have bodies that eventually wear out, malfunction, and cannot keep them alive).
Is That So?
At this point you might object. What happens if we can alter human bodies so that they don’t wear out any more? Then “All men are mortal” might become false. Actually, it wouldn’t.
A man whose body doesn’t wear out—let’s call him Man 2.0—is different from what every man is now (Man 1.0). They’re not exactly the same kind of Thing, so while all Man 1.0’s are mortal, all Man 2.0’s might not be.
If two things share many common characteristics, but don’t share the particular Characteristics necessary to produce a given effect, the effect may not happen. If a red wooden block and a red wooden ball are identical in every respect except shape, just because the ball rolls doesn’t mean the block will. If Man 1.0 is mortal, it doesn’t mean that Man 2.0 is.
On the day that Man 2.0 does appear on the scene, it may become necessary to specify that when you say “All men are mortal” you mean Man 1.0 only. That’s why, whenever you’re trying to find a cause, it’s a good idea to clearly and precisely define your terms whenever you refer to a class of things (“all men”) or to identify the specific thing (“Joe Jones”) that you’re referring to. That way you know what you’re talking about and, when you do find the cause you’re looking for, you’ll know which Things your explanation applies to and which it doesn’t.
Causes Turn “A Is B” into “A Is A”
We asked why all men are mortal—the Characteristics that make every Thing that is a man eventually die—and we identified the cause as having a body that wears out. Knowing that was the reason, we could restate an “A is B” statement:
All men (A) are mortal (B)
into an “A is A” statement:
All men (who have bodies that eventually wear out, malfunction, and cannot keep them alive) are mortal (have bodies that eventually wear out, malfunction, and cannot keep them alive).
Substituting “A” for “have bodies that eventually wear out, malfunction, and cannot keep them alive” we get:
All men (who are A) are mortal (A).
When we know the specific Characteristics of A that cause B, it converts an “A is B” statement into an “A is A” statement that has to be true. You can be absolutely certain of it.
The Certainty Test
We saw that any statement in the form “A is A” is true and has to be true. We can also be certain of something like “All men are mortal” if you can find the cause that converts it into the form “A is A.”
The Certainty Test is: If you can identify the cause that converts an “A is B” statement to an “A is A” statement, you can be certain that “A is B” is true.
Let’s see how this works with another example.
All calico cats (cats with white, black, and orange fur) we had observed had been female, but we didn’t know why. As a result, we couldn’t say, with confidence, that calico cats are always female because someday we might find a male calico.
After studying feline genetics, scientists discovered that calico coloring occurred when a cat had certain specific genes on each of two X chromosomes. If a cat had a required gene on one X chromosome only, it would be white, black, and gray rather than white, black, and orange. Since all males have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome (XY) while females have two X’s (XX), only females had white, black, and orange fur.
Knowing the genetic cause, let’s try the Certainty Test. We restate the “A is B” statement:
Calico cats (A) are females (B)
as an “A is A” statement:
Calico cats (who have two X chromosomes with certain genes) are females (have two X chromosomes).
Substituting “A” for “two X chromosomes” we get:
Calico cats (who have A with certain genes) are females (have A).
Since having two X chromosomes causes calico coloring, it explains why we never saw any male calicos.
That was fine until the day that Mr. Calico showed up. Now what? If we were so sure that the previous genetic explanation was true, how could we account for this creature?
When scientists examined the unusual cat’s genotype, they discovered that it was neither female (XX) nor truly male (XY). While it appeared to be a male, it had an extra sex chromosome and was actually XXY, a condition known as Klinefelter’s syndrome. Thus, calico color still required two XX chromosomes and the old explanation still applied, but it applied to more than just female cats.
Carrying over causal knowledge from one situation to another is very common—and extremely useful. Finding the cause that explains one type of thing often provides insight into the characteristics and actions of other Things that have the same Characteristics. If we know why all men are mortal, the same biological characteristics explain why all dogs and cats are mortal too.
Sometimes finding the cause that satisfies the Certainty Test can be easy. All it may take is one observation to identify the causal Characteristics and know that you’ve got it. But often the cause-finding process is difficult and time-consuming. A biologist might dedicate his entire life and run thousands of experiments seeking the cause of a disease and never discover it.
Some causes are impossible to determine with certainty because of the nature of the Things you’re dealing with. Trying to understand people is a case in point. You cannot know, for sure, why other people do what they do because you’re not a mind reader. You can’t get inside their heads and directly observe the thinking that causes their actions. All you can know for sure is what you see them say and do, but you can only guess as to why.
It’s also impossible to know with absolute and total certainty what happened when you weren’t around. Did John Wilkes Booth assassinate Lincoln? It’s extremely probable because, if it were untrue, it would contradict so many things you know, but you can’t be as sure of it as you can about what you’re seeing with your own eyes right now.
Nonetheless, you often have to act on incomplete and uncertain knowledge. So what do you do? You do the best you can and continue to look for causes using the step-by-step process for finding causes, above.
When you identify what is known and unknown, there are always some pieces to the puzzle you can be sure of. While the police didn’t know who murdered Winterbourne, they knew with certainty that he was dead. They knew that the gun they found under the fire escape was almost certainly the murder weapon because, when they fired it, the spent bullets had exactly the same unique markings as the ones in the victim’s body.
As for the unknowns, even if you don’t know the cause with absolute certainty, when you use the correct method, you’ll be getting closer and closer to it. You may not learn everything you want to know, but with each step on the road to truth you’ll understand more and more and be able to act with greater effectiveness and self-confidence.
You might also like
1. Kanbar, Maurice (2001). Secrets from an Inventor’s Notebook. Council Oak Books. pp. 26–27. ISBN 1-57178-099-8.
2. Aristotle, Metaphysics (1005b 19–20).
3. Aristotle, Metaphysics 7 (1011b 26–27).
4. Aristotle, Metaphysics (Book IV, part 7).