Every now and again, I find it useful to review logical principles that are central to rational discourse, yet often misunderstood or just botched in the heat of the moment. Here are two all-time favorites …
1. Correlation & Causation
Just because two events are correlated doesn’t mean that there is a causal relationship that exists between the two.
As pictured above, a hot sunny day may be the cause of my buying an ice cream cone. The hot sunny day may also cause me to get a sunburn. Because both the ice cream and the sunburn have the hot sunny day as their cause, they tend to appear at the same time. In other words, the ice cream and the sunburn are correlated.
But just because the ice cream and sunburn are correlated does not mean that there’s a causal relationship between them: buying an ice cream cone doesn’t cause me to get a sunburn; nor does getting a sunburn cause me to buy the ice cream.
Heads & Tails
For another example, consider the head and the tail of a cat. Cat-heads and cat-tails very frequently appear together—so it’s fair to say that their appearances are correlated with one another.
But does this imply that a cat-head causes a cat-tail, or vice versa? Clearly not—because causation entails the appearance of one event (the “cause”) prior to the appearance of the other event (the “effect”). Cat-heads do not appear before cat-tails, and somehow catalyze the latter’s appearance.
The correlation of cat-heads with cat-tails is due to their jointly belonging to the more general category of “cat.” In this sense, we could say that the appearance of a cat is the cause of the cat-head appearance as well as of the cat-tail appearance.
In other words, cat-heads and cat-tails share a common cause—or, more appropriately, a common source—namely, a cat, and this accounts for their correlation.
Subjective Experience & Neurological Patterns
An example germane to nondual spiritual inquiry is the relationship between subjective experience and neurological functioning. Because certain subjective experiences frequently appear with specific neurological patterns, it’s fair to say that the two are correlated.
There is a more-or-less predictable mapping between, say, the subjective experience of seeing the color red, and particular neurological activity. Like the head and the tail of a cat, they tend to arise together.
Does this mean that subjective experiences cause neurological activity—or that neurological activity causes subjective experiences? Not necessarily! And, as it turns out, there’s actually little to no scientific evidence for such a causal relationship.
An equally plausible explanation for this correlation is that subjective experience and neurological activity jointly belong to a more general category, which is the source of both of them. One candidate for such a category is Awareness.
If the subjective experience of seeing the color red, and some specific neurological patterns, emerge simultaneously from the ground of Awareness—this would account for the correlation between the two. At the very least, it’s an interesting hypothesis!
The take-home point is that a correlation between subjective experience and neurological functioning does not necessarily imply a causal relationship between the two.
2. Necessary & Sufficient Conditions
Necessary and sufficient conditions are distinct. A condition is logically necessary if the outcome requires it. A condition is logically sufficient if it guarantees the outcome.
Gold & Golden Ring
Consider a golden ring: a ring made of pure gold. Since gold is the substance of the ring, it is a necessary condition for the appearance of the golden ring. Without the gold, there could be no golden ring.
But does this mean that gold is also a sufficient condition for a golden ring? No, it doesn’t!
Why? Because the mere presence of the gold doesn’t guarantee the appearance of a golden ring. If it did, I could just place a lump of gold on the table in front of me, and a golden ring would appear. But this isn’t how it is.
Other conditions, aside from the gold itself, are also necessary in order to create a golden ring. For instance: a skilled jeweler, and the jeweler’s tools, and a specific design for the ring. Only in the presence of these additional conditions does the golden ring manifest.
So, while it’s true that taking the gold away from the golden ring causes the golden ring to disappear (because gold is a necessary condition)—it’s not true that the golden ring depends for its existence exclusively on the gold. Its ingredients include not only gold (its fundamental substance) but also the jeweler, the tools, and the design.
Awareness & Perceptions/Phenomena
An example germane to nondual spiritual inquiry is the relationship between Awareness and perceptions of phenomena (aka appearances).
Clearly, Awareness is a necessary component of the experience of perceiving phenomena—because without Awareness, there could be no perceiving.
But does this mean that Awareness is also a sufficient condition for perceiving phenomena? No.
If Awareness were a sufficient condition for the perception of phenomena, then the mere presence of Awareness would guarantee the arising of phenomena. But this isn’t how it is. Awareness can be experienced as such—without the arising of phenomena.
Also, the perception of a specific phenomenon requires conditions other than Awareness per se.
Consider the experience of seeing an elephant. Awareness is a necessary condition for the seeing-an-elephant experience—because without Awareness, there could be no such experience. If I take Awareness away from my seeing-an-elephant experience, the experience is nowhere to be found.
But does this mean that Awareness per se is a sufficient condition for the experience of seeing-an-elephant? No, it doesn’t.
Why? Because the mere presence of Awareness as such does not guarantee the seeing-an-elephant experience. If it did, every time there were Awareness, there would be the seeing-an-elephant experience. And this isn’t how it is.
The seeing-an-elephant experience requires conditions other than Awareness per se. Most obviously, it requires an elephant (or at least the perception of an elephant). Without an elephant, there cannot be the seeing-an-elephant experience. It also requires the perceptual/conceptual apparatus of a sentient being (in this case, a human body-mind).
Mystery & Paradox
So, how does this accord with an understanding of Awareness as the nondual source of all phenomena?
It puts us right in the heart of the mystery of a nondual Reality which can also appear as apparently differentiated perceptions. Seeing-an-elephant is not an identical experience to seeing-a-ladybug, even when we understand clearly that the essential substance of both is Awareness.
Though they’re both made of gold, a golden ring and a golden bracelet are not identical phenomena. Even a yogi adept at “one taste”—viz understanding diverse experiences as being one, from the standpoint of their essential nature—can perceive the difference between a golden ring and a golden bracelet.
What accounts for the differences between these “mere appearances”—however “seeming” or “only apparent” they may be?
And what’s the appropriate relationship to such differences? Should they be basically ignored, in the manner of melting all our golden jewelry down into a single lump of undifferentiated gold? Or should we appreciate and actively celebrate the variously unique ornaments?