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The Why of Things

The Why of Things: Causality in Science, Medicine, and Life

Peter V. Rabins
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 304
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    The Why of Things
    Book Description:

    Why was there a meltdown at the Fukushima power plant? Why do some people get cancer and not others? Why is global warming happening? Why does one person get depressed in the face of life's vicissitudes while another finds resilience?

    Questions like these -- questions of causality -- form the basis of modern scientific inquiry, posing profound intellectual and methodological challenges for researchers in the physical, natural, biomedical, and social sciences. In this groundbreaking book, noted psychiatrist and author Peter Rabins offers a conceptual framework for analyzing daunting questions of causality. Navigating a lively intellectual voyage between the shoals of strict reductionism and relativism, Rabins maps a three-facet model of causality and applies it to a variety of questions in science, medicine, economics, and more.

    Throughout this book, Rabins situates his argument within relevant scientific contexts, such as quantum mechanics, cybernetics, chaos theory, and epigenetics. A renowned communicator of complex concepts and scientific ideas, Rabins helps readers stretch their minds beyond the realm of popular literary tipping points, blinks, and freakonomic explanations of the world.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53545-8
    Subjects: General Science, Health Sciences, Philosophy, Statistics
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION (pp. 1-5)

    On March 11, 2011, a tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi power plant on the northeastern coast of Japan. The plant had shut down, as planned, forty minutes previously, when an earthquake occurred just miles off the coast, but the tsunami destroyed the backup sources of electricity that powered the required constant cooling of the reactors. The resultant core meltdown of three of the facilities’ five reactors led to a major release of radiation.

    What caused this catastrophic failure? The most straightforward answer is the earthquake and tsunami. But subsequent expert analyses cited “technical and institutional weaknesses,” such as a weak...

  5. 1 HISTORICAL OVERVIEW: The Four Approaches to Causality (pp. 6-29)

    The concept of causality is so much a part of our lives that we often think about, discuss, or identify causes without considering the complexity of the underlying concept. Questions about cause touch on issues small and large—questions such as, why did I stumble, what led to that car accident, what caused today’s weather? Why are some people happier than others? Why do some individuals become sick while others avoid an illness that “everyone is getting”? What causes poverty, economic cycles, substance abuse, evil? How did the universe come to be?

    It is not the goal of this book...


    As chapter 1 illustrated, causality has been conceptualized in many different ways over the centuries. The current view of causality is that it has multiple meanings and that these vary by circumstance. The goal of this book is to present a model that brings the multiple ideas that characterize current views of causality together into an approach that recognizes the strengths and limitations of each, the complementary nature of their contributions to the overall topic, the duplication that is inherent in applying nonoverlapping but sometimes parallel approaches, the need for guidance regarding when to use a specific approach, and the...

  7. 3 THE ANSWER IS EITHER “NO” OR “YES”: Causality as a Categorical Concept (pp. 37-44)

    In a very short period of time, computers have become an indispensable part of everyday life, yet the idea upon which they are based is extraordinarily simple: knowledge can be coded and stored in a binary or dichotomous fashion such that each information point consists of a question with only two possible answers. In numeric representation the two possibilities are usually “zero” or “one,” while in linguistic representation the two choices are usually stated as “no” or “yes.” The computer represents these two states in an electronic circuit in which a switch is either open or closed. When the circuit...

  8. 4 PROBABILITIES, ODDS, AND RISKS: Predispositions and Provocations as Causes (pp. 45-62)

    Chapter 3 presented the concept of cause as categorical. In that binary or digital model, something either is or is not a cause, and, if it is, it acts directly to bring about an event. This chapter presents an alternative model, the probabilistic approach, in which causes are conceptualized as events that affect the likelihood that another event will occur. In this model, causes act as influences, risk factors, predispositions, modifiers, and buffers.

    The complexity of the probabilistic concept of cause begins with the definition of the word “probability.” Its primary meaning relates to predictability or prognostication, that is, the...

  9. 5 A THIRD MODEL OF CAUSALITY: The Emergent, Nonlinear Approach (pp. 63-79)

    In the late 1940s, the MIT professor Norbert Wiener proposed a new approach to the study of systems: he analyzed them as functioning wholes made up of multiple interacting modules. He named the discipline cybernetics and contrasted its approach to the prevailing scientific model’s focus on individual interactions. Inherent in Wiener’s proposal was the idea that the sum of the parts of a system is greater than their individual contributions. This idea seemed quite radical at the time, in part because Wiener had difficulty finding convincing real-world examples that he could use to convince skeptics, but it influenced the designers...


    Because many of the events and objects studied in the physical sciences can be readily observed, manipulated, and measured, chemistry and physics should contain some of the best-established examples of causal reasoning. Perhaps this is the reason that scientists such as Galileo and Einstein have influenced not only our current understanding of how the universe works but also how reality and causality are conceptualized. This chapter reviews three concepts developed during the twentieth century by physicists, chemists, and mathematicians—relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and the incompleteness theorem—that have significantly influenced the current conceptualization of causality and must be considered...


    The biological sciences offer the opportunity to examine the application of the empirical method (facet 3) to the study of causality because many of the issues explored by biologists are amenable to experiment. This chapter will use three topics, the nature-nurture debate, the application of causal knowledge to the goal of eliminating specific infectious diseases, and the emerging discipline of ecology, to illustrate the application of the empirical method and its interaction with facet 2’s level of analysis and facet 1’s causative models. The chapter will end with brief discussions of two topics that have been discussed before: the directionality...

  12. 8 EMPIRICAL: EPIDEMIOLOGY (pp. 136-156)

    Epidemiology is the science that uses the study of populations and groups of individuals to identify correlates and causes of ill health. Its goal is the identification of strategies to prevent and treat disease. The discipline developed in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries out of a desire to analyze accurately vital statistics such as birth and death records being collected by governments and from the recognition that some diseases could be prevented by targeting groups of people rather than individuals.

    The word “epidemiology” shares a common root with the word “epidemic,” and Hippocrates is credited with distinguishing between the...


    Like so many things, the recognition that there are major differences between history and science can be traced back to Aristotle. However, in the modern era it was the early eighteenth-century philosopher Giambatista Vico who first emphasized the distinction. The differences were further contrasted and highlighted by the nineteenth-century sociologist Max Weber, and, today, the distinction is often depicted as absolute.

    The nonscience form of knowing is referred to by many different names—history, narrative, story, chronicle, empathic method—and its essential methods are used in many disciplines. While there are subtleties of meaning that distinguish one from the other,...


    Meister Eckhart presents a challenging dilemma that is still insurmountable almost seven hundred years after he stated it—many individuals report that they gain profound emotional and intellectual benefits from their religious and spiritual beliefs, yet, he claims, these cannot be used to argue in favor of their truthfulness. Conversely, he argues, those who reject the validity or utility of religious ideas cannot use empathic or scientific/empirical arguments to support their views, either.

    The essence of Eckhart’s argument is that a different approach must be taken to understand causality in religion, one that is based not on logic or emotion...

  15. 11 SEEKING THE WHY OF THINGS: The Model Applied (pp. 195-254)

    Chapters 1 through 10 have established a conceptual model for approaching questions of causality, and they used examples to illustrate and clarify these ideas. In this chapter, the emphasis will be reversed. Six specific issues—the emergence of HIV/AIDS as an epidemic illness worldwide, causality in U.S. law, evolution as a causal concept, Alzheimer disease, human aggression, and the etiology of depression—will be used to discuss the three-facet model and illustrate both its utility and limitations.

    In 1981, doctors in Los Angeles reported a mysterious illness that had afflicted five young males. All were homosexual and had been healthy...

  16. References (pp. 255-264)
  17. Index (pp. 265-284)