ernst_p_ppel's picture
Head of Research Group Systems, Neuroscience and Cognitive Research, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Germany; Guest Professor, Peking University, China
Neuroscientist, Chairman, Board of Directors, Human Science Center and Department of Medical Psychology, Munich University, Germany; Author, Mindworks

"Monocausalitis" — Pessimistic Optimism To Overcome a Common Disease

Since the question is in "edge world" it has thought implicitly day and night in my brain what I could be optimistic about, (on the explicit level I had to do also some other things). Frankly speaking with respect to the "big questions" nothing came to the surface of my mind. Can I be optimistic as a scientist or as a citizen about such questions like: Can we come to sustainable peace? Will we really solve one day the question how our brain functions? Are we going to win the battle against diseases? Will it once be possible to be free from prejudices? Etc, etc. The answer is an emphatic "no". There is no reason to be optimistic about such "big questions".

On the other hand, I look at myself as an optimistic person; on a personal level I am optimistic about the future of my children and grandchildren, about the career of my doctoral students then and now, about the realization of some new research projects in the near future, about my health after some problems in the past; etc. etc. Thus, if everybody would be optimistic about personal matters (which empirically speaking is unfortunately not the case), possibly in the big picture there could be a reason for an optimistic attitude towards others and the world. Such optimism would be an expression of trust, not an expression of solving the problems of humankind.

On the other hand: It would be great if I could be optimistic about fighting successfully a disease of all humans, namely "monocausalitis". (But again: there is no reason to be optimistic; we better be realistic). Humans have the urge to explain everything in a monocausal way. We are always looking for one reason only. The philosophical sentence "nothing is without reason" (nihil est sine ratione) is usually misunderstood as "nothing is without one reason". Occam's razor, i.e. to look for the simplest solution of a problem is OK, as long as a solution is not too simple. We are apparently victims of our evolutionary heritage being satisfied only if one and only one cause for the solution of a problem is identified (or claimed).

In understanding biological processes, for instance brain processes, and how they control the "mindworks", we better free ourselves from this monocausal trap. I am not only referring to the problem of the many hidden variables which have to be accepted in any analysis of a biological process and which create the typical headache of an experimenter — it is never possible to control every variable —, but I am referring also to a structural problem. Biological phenomena can better be understood, if multicausality is accepted as a guiding principle. In particular, I would like to promote "complementarity as a generative principle". In quantum mechanics to the best of my knowledge complementarity is a descriptive principle; in biology it is a creative principle. Just one example: It does not make much sense to explain human behaviour only on a genetic basis; genetic and environmental information have to come together to form for instance the matrix of our brain. This and many other examples are so self-evident that it is even embarrassing to refer to them.

But still, if one looks at the expressed optimism that may save our world or that gives the final insight into mother nature's tricks we are confronted with monocausal solutions. Possibly, if we accept our evolutionary heritage, the burden of "monocausalitis", we may overcome this disease, at least partially.