A simple cause-and-effect relationship might, if diagrammed, look like this:

A → B

Here, A (the cause) causes B (the effect).  This seems easy to understand.  You poke me, I feel pressure.  You poke me hard, I feel pain.  Your finger into my arm, my shoulder, my leg.  Where A equals your poke and B equals my reaction, we get A → B.  And I might get a bruise.  I bruise kind of easy.

I’ve been thinking about causality, this A → B relationship, because I’m not sure anymore what it means to be either a cause or an effect.  Trying to figure out why something happens—what triggers something, what causes it—is difficult.  This is the daily work of almost every profession I can think of: auto repair, business, education, medicine.  We try to figure out what’s causing the squeal, why the potato puffs aren’t selling, what’s keeping Johnny from learning to read, what’s growing this cancer and how can we stop it.

I’ve become skeptical that we can meaningfully do this.  Educational anthropologist Harry Wolcott said the truest thing he learned in all his years of research was that “human action is overdetermined.”  In other words, we do B not because of only A but because of A and C, D, E, and F, maybe F1, maybe F2, F3, F4 . . .

A + C + D + E + F + F1 + F2 + F3 + F4 → B

Usually when we do something, we have a good reason.  And if one isn’t enough, we have plenty of reasons more.  (For instance, Wolcott’s house was burned down by a young man he’d (1) wooed and (2) exploited for research.  You could say Wolcott felt the blunt end of a little overdetermination.)

I often say I have eighty voices in my head.  I don’t think I’m crazy.  But when I approach a decision or need an opinion, the voices weigh in.  They align, they congress, they argue.  Sometimes it’s fifteen to sixty, with five keeping quiet.  Sometimes it’s seventy-nine to one, but that one is sticking with its guns.  Sometimes we’ve got consensus, and then it’s a pleasure and a joy to act.  Yes, I’ll watch a movie with you!  Yes, I’ll go to your party!  No, I won’t do drugs!  But sometimes, most times, it’s like fifty-five in, all for different reasons, and twenty-five arguing hard (or not at all) in some other way.  So how—how could I ever isolate one of my voices that is the reason, is the cause, for any thing I do?

Good thing I’m not a super villain.  The hero’s-about-to-die reveal moment would last freaking forever.