Thursday, February 5, 2015

Correlation, Causation, and Spirituality

I've been itching to share this story for a long time!

I entered one of the gardens in the homestead where I lived at Earthaven Ecovillage one morning last Spring, and I found a friend and roommate, Allie, about to move a flower from one bed to another.

As I walked up, she placed shovel a few inches from the base of the plant, paused, and said, "Dear beautiful flower, I'm SO sorry to move you from your home, but it's for your own good - it's so crowded here that you couldn't possibly grow up healthfully and share your gifts with the garden. I'll move you to where you can share your gifts! This is going to be hard on you, but I'll be careful and it won't take long, I promise!"

Now by this time at the ecovillage, I was quite used to people talking to plants as if they were people, so this didn't bother me in the least.

She carefully pushed her shovel vertically into the soil perpendicular to the plant and a few inches from it, and she gently rocked the shovel back and forth. Then she did the same thing 3 more times around the plant, forming a square around it. Then she dug into the ground where she first started and this time got underneath the plant, bringing it slowly out of the ground with a lot of the surrounding soil, keeping the roots intact. She carried the plant over to its new home in a nearby bed in a hole she'd prepared a little earlier and watered it.

After saying hi, I asked: "I have a question. Do you think that plant can hear you? Do you think it responds to what you say?"

"Yes!" she answered. She said it could, even without ears. Whether it heard the sound waves or responded to the intention or tapped into some shared universal energy, she wasn't sure, but one way or another she believed we are all connected, and the plant certainly responded to what she said.

I started to ask the sort of questions a civilized engineer naturally would: "How do you know? How does it receive and process the message?" Etc. And I didn't get very compelling answers, at least to me - as far as I could tell, she simply felt deeply emotionally attached to the plant and to life as a whole, and treated plants like she would treat a baby: as animate beings that have inherent value, even if they can't talk back or obviously demonstrate that they understand some particular message.

And then it occurred to me: maybe it doesn't matter if the plant can hear her or not! Putting aside the possibility that the plant could somehow actually respond to her verbally-expressed feelings, what if her deep caring for the plant, and her spoken promise to take care of it, and her spoken description of why she was moving it, all lead her to take REALLY REALLY special care when she moved it, much more care than a normal gardener who merely thinks a flower is pretty and would cost $0.95 to replace?

I bet her transplanted plants survive much more often than most people's! And I bet her gardens in general are much richer, producing more food, more beauty, and sustaining more nearby life.

This turned me on to a whole new way of looking at belief: that it's not necessarily the content of the belief that matters, but how that belief makes us behave. Allie's belief had a beneficial impact whether it was correct or not.

In correlation/causation terms, assuming the plant couldn't actually perceive her words, the cause of the plant's better odds of surviving the move wasn't that it heard her. The cause was Allie's feelings, and how they lead her to feel so connected to the plant that she treated it with the same care as she would a baby. So her belief system is highly correlated with successful gardening, even if she's wrong about the ultimate cause of her success.

Craziness! It's possible to mix up causation and correlation, but to our benefit. The more I looked, the more cool examples of this I found.

False Plant 'Beliefs'
Here's a non-human example of mixing up correlation and causation: I learned that some plants' stomata - the little pores on the surface of leaves that open in the morning to allow the leaf to take in water vapor and other gases, and then close later in the day - don't open in response to sunlight even though they open at dawn every morning.

A close-up of stomata, little pores on leaves that allow them to emit or take in gases. One is shown closed, the other open. (Source)

Instead, they open in response to bird song. That is, plants need to open their stomata at dawn when there's dew, but they don't depend on what you'd think is the most reliable indicator of dawn: the sun. Instead they depend on something highly correlated with the sun, bird song. As I mentioned in a previous post, birds have been around for 10s of millions of years, and the planet has been experiencing their song continuously the whole time as the sun is continuously dawning somewhere around the world. It's even easy to imagine that bird songs are more reliable than sunlight: clouds can block the sun, but what could block the songs of thousands of birds all over the forest every morning?

For any gardeners out there, here is a bird-song-simulator used to increase plant-growth.

So we see that the cause of the plant's behavior isn't actually what's good for them (i.e. bird song doesn't make plants better off in any direct way), but it's highly correlated with something that does help them (sunlight bringing the morning dew), so they do just fine responding to that.

The Natives' Rain Dance
We've all heard of the rain dance - a bunch of Native Americans gather in a big open space and dance around in funny clothes, making lots of noise praying to some deity to make it pour. And this is supposed to bring rain somehow, those silly injuns!

Actually, this worked.

The Natives didn't dance just anywhere. They would go up to clearings on mountain tops, and since it was dry, these clearings would be very dusty, and since they were high, there'd be plenty of wind.

 Rain dance of a pueblo group from the US southwest. (Source)

The Natives' dance was very energetic, and the bright clothes and loud drums and singing and music would help maintain their energy as they danced. It included lots of scuffling and stomping, kicking up huge clouds of dust high into the sky where the dust particles would form nuclei where water would condense, eventually forming rain drops and bringing rain!

Now, I'm sure their dances didn't always bring rain, just like Allie's transplants don't always live, but their dances sure increased the odds of rain dramatically. Did it matter which god they worshiped? Or whether they dressed in the particular clothes associated with that deity? No, but what did matter is they had a belief system that caused them to act in their own best interest, especially during hard times like droughts. Essentially, they rationalized good behavior.

False-But-Beneficial Beliefs in Civilization
These false-but-beneficial beliefs are also common in civilization. Have you ever had a friend who stated emphatically, "I don't believe in luck!" or "I make my own luck."? Such people are usually independent, confident, and comfortable dealing with risks and bouncing back from failures.

Here's my definition of luck: luck is the degree to which events totally outside your control affect your life at a given time. Bad luck example: starting a mortgage company in Spring 2007, right before the housing bubble crash. Good luck example: starting a debt restructuring company in Spring 2007, right before the housing bubble crash (all assuming you weren't able to see the crash coming). Thus we see luck does exist - things outside our control can affect us.

So this hypothetical person is wrong - luck exists, and it can't be manufactured. However, many opportunities exist completely outside our ability to perceive them. We can influence the odds of finding these opportunities even while we're unaware of them - even before the opportunities exist! -  and this is where those positive qualities come in handy.

A personal example showing hidden or unknowable opportunities: I got bored during my first few weeks of college and decided to learn a programming language better by writing a little planner program. I could enter in appointments and it would spit them back out. During my one and only interview that semester, 3 weeks into college (fall 2004), I got interviewed by a company solely interested in freshman interns they could train up, and my doing that program 'just for fun' was enough evidence that I had a passion for the work that they hired me. I ended up interning there 3 times and working at the company for 3 years after college. In fall 2011, the same guy that interviewed me in 2004 invited me to lunch and offered me a spot at his new company, which I happily accepted.

And to think none of this would have happened if I hadn't gotten bored and written a silly little program back in the first few weeks of college in 2004!

I obviously believe in luck, but my point is that people can influence opportunities they can't perceive, and so having those qualities associated with false disbelief in luck makes those people more likely to find those hidden opportunities.

These false-but-beneficial beliefs occur at the level of whole countries or civilizations - take the western civilization belief in growth, particularly technological growth. The common, received wisdom is that our society may have problems, but it can solve them with economic growth - we can create more wealth, cure more diseases, reduce unemployment and poverty, and generally become more prosperous if only we can 'grow' more; practically speaking, if we can just increase economic production and consumption. And the way to achieve this growth is to generate better technologies or processes that improve our efficiency, allow us access to new resources, give us some new capability, or whatever.

And for a really long time, this has seemed to be true: economic growth has been staggering for a few centuries, and technological improvements have both enabled this growth and improved the quality of life of many societies that engaged in this growth.

The trouble is, this belief is only partially true: it was our technology combined with the incredibly energy-rich resources in the ground (oil, coal, etc) that enabled this growth. Nature gave us unbelievable returns-on-investment a century ago, when we could invest a barrel of energy in drilling and get 100 barrels out (a 100:1 energy return on energy invested, or EROEI). Now, projects like the Alberta Tar Sands require a barrel of oil to get just 3 barrels out (3:1 EROEI). Ethanol (using corn as an energy source) yields 1 barrel-of-oil-equivalent for every barrel-equivalent invested (1:1 EROEI, basically a waste of time, or a needless political handout to farming interests).

A chart showing the diminishing returns of our energy-extraction abilities over time. (Source)
For more details on this idea, see Peak Prosperity's Crash Course which ties together environmental, economic, and energy issues to describe how this energy cliff manifests.
These days, the culture maintains this faith in technology and growth even though we've used up all the easy-to-extract energy and are now seeing severely diminishing returns. No technology can possibly find energy-rich resources that don't exist - no technology can enable infinite growth on a finite planet.

Two centuries ago, societies that didn't believe in (or value) technology-focused growth got blown away by societies that did: the natives didn't stand a chance against the USA. Now this false-but-beneficial belief in our technology-driven growth and capitalist system is becoming false-but-non-beneficial: with less growth in energy available, and soon less energy available in in an absolute sense, meaningful economic growth is going to end, and our totally growth-oriented society is going to get really mad - consider that our monetary system is debt-based, requiring economic growth to stay solvent, and think of all the pensions and retirement systems that require economic growth (driving bond and stock market growth) to pay their owners, among many other examples.

Coming Up With Our Own Stories
So what should we believe? Another friend from Earthaven, Chris, described a narrative he hopes to encourage after civilization passes its peak energy usage and begins its energy descent: the story is that humans sinned in the past and that we are responsible for recovering from their mistakes, for rebuilding the beautiful life ecosystems they didn't sufficiently appreciate.

This story accounts for all the poisoned and damned/dammed rivers, the infertile soil, the highly variable and changing climate, logged ex-forests, highly thinned or extinct populations of fish and large animals, higher-intensity and more damaging storms, huge amounts of trash, etc that future-people will have to deal with. In fact, eventually this degraded state will seem normal, with only the remnants of an incredibly energy-intensive civilization scattered around the landscape to make people wonder what happened. And so Chris's vision is for us to return to being stewards using a redemption narrative to see ourselves in a positive role, free of guilt or shame, but doing the most important work we can be doing: sustaining the life systems that humanity depends on for future generations of humans and non-humans alike.

In addition to making up stories from scratch or mixing-and-matching ancient narratives, I'm excited to learn first-hand what narratives current indigenous communities believe. In about 2 weeks, I'll be heading into the Amazonian Jungle in southeast Ecuador where I'll be living with an indigenous Shuar community. I'll be excited to learn their belief system, at least if my Spanish is up to the task!

I believe humans' need for narratives and our spirituality evolved because they caused us to behave in ways that benefited us even when we didn't understand why or when our belief was wrong. Ancient humans may not have had PhDs in ecology like some of us do, but they developed belief systems that caused them to treat their ecosystems with deep respect: we all know the story of the natives who used every part of the buffalo and prayed over it in thanks after the kill, for example. This belief system and this ritual behavior reinforced their emotional and spiritual connection to the things they depended on and ensured they didn't overconsume their renewable resource base. It caused them to feel mutually dependent rather than dominant, an attitude that lead them to protect what they depended on. Allie is another beautiful example: if we treat our plants with the same love we treat our children, they'll prosper and and we'll prosper with them. Regardless what you believe, this seems like a good thing!

I was really skeptical of Allie's and others' 'connections' with plants when I first encountered them. It didn't take long for me to convert to feeling that same spiritual connection though, that same intimate bond that urges me to sustain life so that I can be sustained. Later that summer, Allie and I read a book called "Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm" which presented tons of evidence for the Gaia hypothesis and that all life, including plants, are sentient parts of a greater connected Whole. It describes the scientific evidence that plants can distinguish between other plants and themselves, between offspring and non-offspring of the same species, that plants within and across species can 'ally' to communicate about infections and respond to ward them off, that plants teach their offspring (meaning, they send chemical messages that cause their offspring to change their behavior, similar to how humans send verbal messages to teach/mentor their offspring).

This means that just as human orphans become impoverished without parents to care for them and mentor them, plants (and other animals) become impoverished when they're cut off from large chunks of their families and surrounding ecosystem! And the book described groups of plants cooperating and coordinating in various ways across hundreds of miles and even around the planet, all acting in their best interests and responding to changes in their environment intelligently - as sentient beings.

In short, I still don't think the plant heard my friend Allie but... I'm not as sure I used to be.