On the radio the other day I was listening to a report about how cool and rainy its been this summer. The reporter went on to interview some pedestrian (read: no meteorological expertise). He said something along the lines of: well, since it was a cool summer maybe that means we’ll have a mild winter as well.
I don’t think its a stretch to assume that the man had no meteorological basis for making this claim, yet we hear these sorts of statements all the time. Why do people commonly assume that there are physical relationships between past and future events? Or, even worse, that past events can somehow influence the outcome of future events even when lacking a direct causal element?
I’m currently working my way through some of David Hume’s philosophy. He seems to focus on one important notion; that causal relationships, even down to apparent the physical laws of the universe, are influenced by our perceptions. In other words, we assume, despite lack of evidence, that a falling object will conform to Newtonian laws of motion everywhere in the universe. We make inferences about effects without completely understanding the causes because all previous experience has given rise to these expectations – and so we want all future experiences to conform as well. Furthermore, because these experiences must be filtered through human consciousness, events (and our expectation about future events, causes and effects) are inherently biased.
This notion can be extended one step further, by discussing the statement from the guy on the radio.
Not only do people seem to have askeptical expectations about causal relationships (by assuming a deterministic worldview and ignoring the effect of subtle variations on outcomes) and too brazenly draw inferences about the world, but there is also the expectation that the human brain can bend outcomes at will.
Radio guy wills there to be a mild winter and has some expectation that this will occur – despite the lack of data that links weather patterns in this way. Sports fans often wear their lucky jersey or sit in a specific way, in order to meta-influence the game.
Hume was only half way there.
Not only do our minds distort our expectations for cause to preceed a predicted effect, often these expectations are based nothing more than hope, desire and observation biases. Once these biases are set up, we think that our [incorrect] expectations can have an affect on actual outcomes.