People have to know why. When some inexplicable something happens, a headlong rush to ascertain causes immediately follows. The human mind is a relentless categorizer of phenomenon, hating when it must leave a morsel of effect dangling in the mind without a cause. The mind craves order and will conjure from thin air causes to assign to inexplicable effects if it must do so in order to keep its psychic furniture tidy. And if a conjured cause seems a bit too fanciful, its dangling effect will become a matter to relentlessly obsess over.
The endless theorizing over what might have happened to the missing Malaysian airliner of a year ago stands as stark testament to the human mind’s capacity for creatively resolving causation conundrums. The airplane is almost certainly at the bottom of the ocean with no survivors, just like the airplane in the more recent airliner accident quickly proved to be. But the fact that applying Occam’s Razor—i.e., that the simplest solution is most likely the correct one—became a clichéd expression is proof that the existence of a reasonable explanation hardly precludes the human psyche from rejecting reasonable explanations for more fanciful ones.
Though the mind hates effects without discernible causes, evolutionary biologists now know that randomness, essentially effects without discernible causes, drove life’s creation and sustains its continuation. Randomness is how we came to be. And it is how we’ll become what we will become.
The evolution of species is driven by random genetic variations that happen upon solutions enhancing an organism’s survival and reproduction capabilities. These random genetic variations arise at the molecular level from quantum mechanical principles. God really does play dice with the universe. Randomness nests at the core of all matter, animate or inanimate.
Now, to say something occurs randomly is not to say it hasn’t a cause. Presumably, every effect has a cause (and I only say presumably because it is impossible to prove the negative that there are no effects without causes). It is just to say that some effects have causes that are not discernible or that operate outside the ordinary chain of causation. An electron circling an atom appears where it does for a reason, even if the reason is not readily ascertainable by quantum theorists. A gene mutates for a reason or reasons, but the reason or reasons have little relationship to the ordinary purposes for which a gene exists.
And in a newly-published study of the causes of cancer, two-thirds of leukemia, pancreatic, brain, testicular and ovarian cancers (among others studied), could be attributed to random genetic variations; essentially, as it was reported, cancers happen because of “biological bad luck”. For twenty-two of thirty-one cancers studied, environmental (smoking, chemical/viral exposures, etc.) or inherited factors accounted for only about one third of the cases, from an article reporting on the study.
Overall, they attributed 65 percent of cancer incidence to random mutations in genes that can drive cancer growth.
“When someone gets cancer, immediately people want to know why,” said oncologist Dr. Bert Vogelstein of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, who conducted the study published in the journal Science with Johns Hopkins biomathematician Cristian Tomasetti.
“They like to believe there’s a reason. And the real reason in many cases is not because you didn’t behave well or were exposed to some bad environmental influence, it’s just because that person was unlucky. It’s losing the lottery.”
Tomasetti said harmful mutations occur for “no particular reason other than randomness” as the body’s master cells, called stem cells, divide in various tissues.
This is stuff that I pretty much already knew, at least about leukemia. When my son was first diagnosed in April of 2001 with childhood leukemia, I quickly learned that the medical profession knows pretty much nothing of what causes it, which in retrospect made the first night of the diagnosis, spent mainly in the emergency room of the local children’s hospital, morbidly comical.
A parade of doctors, with bright, young faces eager to save the world of childhood scourges like leukemia (instead of suffering the banality of emergency room medicine as was their lot) trooped through our room. Each one, under the pretense of getting educated on my son’s medical history, asked us if we had any relatives who might have had cancer. Each time, we’d explain his maternal grandmother had cervical cancer, but no one else, and that we didn’t know about my paternal history as I never knew my biological father.
But what the doctors were really after was trying to find someone to blame—to conjure a cause for this horrific effect which just couldn’t possibly have been random. Because they, just like pretty much everyone else who found out about the cancer, wanted to find some blameworthy individual for the tragedy. Life doesn’t make sense if it’s all just a crapshoot. The human psyche won’t tolerate it. Even Einstein couldn’t tolerate a universe contrived of randomness. And the human psyche does not want Nature to be solely responsible. It wants a human agent it can lay the blame on. If the cause is human, then the effect can be mitigated or eliminated. Otherwise, life is unbearably, purposelessly random.
One of my sisters theorized that my son’s leukemia was attributable to something I picked up in Iraq in the war. She’s a peacenik lesbian who is far and away the most intellectually gifted of my three sisters, yet she came up with something as absurd as my having been in Iraq during the first Gulf War four years prior to my son’s birth as having caused something that happened just as he turned seven years old. Intelligence, as the doctors in the emergency room the night of his diagnosis, and my otherwise intellectually gifted sister, and even Einstein, attest, is no bar to ridiculous speculations on causation. In fact, it may well be that the more intelligent a person is, the more likely they are to speculate wildly on causes, because relatively intelligent people are more likely to have some confidence borne of experience that causes actually are ascertainable when brainpower is effectively applied. It is not an accident that the mind is hard-wired to seek causes for effects. Understanding cause and effect relationships is an immensely valuable survival skill. But it is an evolutionary accident, the opposite of a spandrel in a sense, that we think we can pinpoint causes for every effect.
Even when things really are random, such as whether a person is on a particular airline flight that plunges into the ocean, the reason for the plane having fallen from the sky must be resolved. It doesn’t make the fact of being on a particular flight any less random to know why the plane went down, so there will be a slight morsel of inexplicable effect dangling in the subconscious even after the plane’s crash is explained, but once the reason for the tragedy is ascertained to reasonable satisfaction, the relatives of the victims can achieve “closure”, a part of the grieving process which is now regularly and tritely summarized in the one ubiquitous word.
The lesson for this study is twofold. First, quit blaming people for getting cancer. I know that there were more than a few people at the time of my son’s diagnosis who believed it was my and my wife’s fault that he got cancer. It wasn’t. Neither was it anyone’s fault that it relapsed eight years later. No one knows for sure why any particular person gets cancer—not even when the cancer seems to be attributable to a behavior, like smoking. Plenty of smokers don’t get lung cancer and plenty of non-smokers do. It is the province of a small mind to pompously judge the misfortune of others as somehow having been caused by some moral failing on their part. Bad stuff sometimes happens to good people. Read the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament if you believe it’s an easy thing to morally and ethically understand why.
Second, at the human level of understanding, life is a crapshoot. Why did the tornado destroy my neighbor’s house and kill him and his family and spare me and mine? It is beyond human understanding. The inherent randomness of fate must be accounted for in whatever philosophy/theology of life that one chooses. Inexplicable things sometimes happen. The trick is to know what’s inexplicable and what’s not. It’s easier than it might seem. One strategy is to make it the default position, like the ultimate philosophical skeptic, David Hume, proposed, that nothing of causation can really be explained. Just because A follows B does not mean B causes A, or even that A and B have any causal connection at all. It may just be that A always follows B because that’s how some third variable is influencing them both. A dash of humility can go a long way. David Hume’s skepticism notwithstanding, there are times when causation can be ascertained, but it is best to start the inquiry by fully grasping the limits of knowledge. Being a good causal skeptic should help protect from the countless charlatans that might be encountered in life. And it may even point the way to some reliably understood truths.
Life is random. But it needn’t be unbearably so.