Cautious about Causation

Just because two things are co-related does not mean one is the cause of the other or that the link between the two is clear or necessary.

Of course, understanding our pasts can be useful in making sense of the present. But it’s a deterministic myth to think, “I had to turn out this way.” The fact of the matter is, there is no straight line whereby certain experiential inputs invariably lead to the same set of lifetime outputs.

 

In the social sciences, one learns quickly (or is supposed to learn) that correlation does not equal causation.

I remember learning in driver’s training the scary statistic that most accidents happen within a few miles from home. The takeaway for us young drivers was obvious: People are careless when driving in familiar places, so be careful! But of course, this takeaway equates correlation (the number of accidents linked to the distance from home) with causation (we must drive worse because we are close to home), when a better explanation is that most of our driving naturally takes places within a few miles of home, so that’s where most of our accidents are bound to happen.

Just because two things are co-related does not mean one is the cause of the other or that the link between the two is clear or necessary.

No Straight Line

In 2001, David Powlison published a brilliant article entitled The Ambiguously Cured Soul. It was about a married woman named Amelia who struggled with lesbian fantasies. Through Christian counseling, Amelia “discovered” that her attraction to women was due to her past: Because she had an abusive father and a distant mother, Amelia was repelled by men and longed to find emotional connection with a woman. As helpful as the counseling may have been in one respect, Powlison argued that the causal narrative was misplaced. Any number of scenarios might have followed from Amelia’s upbringing. As Justin Taylor summarizes, “the counselee might live an immoral heterosexual lifestyle because of her longing for an intimate relationship with men; she might marry a man just like her dad because she’s drawn to that which hurt her; she might isolate herself from the world since she can trust no one; she has a godly marriage having determined to avoid her parents’ mistake.”

Of course, understanding our pasts can be useful in making sense of the present. But it’s a deterministic myth to think, “had to turn out this way.” The fact of the matter is, there is no straight line whereby certain experiential inputs invariably lead to the same set of lifetime outputs.

What Hath Culture Wrought?

What’s true in counseling is true in tragedies too.

All of us in the Reformed world were shocked and saddened to learn that the alleged Ponway Synagogue shooter was “one of us,” a theologically minded young man who belonged to an OPC congregation. Without a doubt, this is an occasion to reflect on whether any of us have been soft on anti-Semitic hatred or if any of our churches are breeding grounds for murderous angst.

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