Cause and Effect

Dynamic neuroimaging techniques (e.g., fMRI) support the exploration of neurological organization in response to behavioral challenge tasks. Using these techniques it is possible to reveal patterns of systematic variation in the allocation or deallocation of structural loci that are associated with experimentally induced behavioral states.  Similarly, the patterns that emerge from these studies can depict the interconnectedness between distant regions, representing reorganized networks of modular capacities that, as a group, provide the neurological resources necessary for the performance of a targeted behavior or range of behaviors.

Having noted this, it is also important to review a set of reminders about the significance of neurological data, relative to persons and their worlds. Having been absent from this blog for quite some time, my hope is that the next few entries will serve as a way to reenter the discussion of the conceptual relationship between Persons and Human Neurological Embodiment (HNE).

The first reminder concerns the status of Cause-Effect (C-E) descriptions. Since what follows is very familiar to members of the Descriptive Psychology community, discussion of C-E descriptions is offered as a formality.

In a different context, Tony Putman has noted that the “value” of C-E descriptions is associated with whether or not there is “a point to describing” something “as such”.  This is a very important reminder because it makes clear that cause does not have ontological significance, in the sense that there is no “cause” that is exclusively and definitively the reason for the occurrence of some state-of-affairs, but instead that the description of some event as a “cause” is a pragmatic decision by an observer. This decision is pragmatic because treating some event (or the state-of-affairs of which that event may be a component) as a cause, may be associated with very practical and, at times, deeply important differences in subsequent states-of-affairs.  The point of the discussion to follow is, therefore, to note that for any event, an unrestricted number of “causes” can be described, given the describer’s pragmatic focus of intent, including descriptions that are called “mechanisms.”

As background, Peter Ossorio developed C-E descriptions as one example of a transformation of the parameters that comprise the parametric analysis of Intentional Action (IA). Although a review of this is also not needed by anyone in the Descriptive Psychology community, such a review may be useful to those not familiar with Descriptive Psychology.

The parametric representation of IA, and its use as a calculational system for behavior description, is presented in multiple publications by Peter G. Ossorio, but most recently in:

Ossorio, P. (2006). Behavior of Persons, Ann Arbor: Descriptive Psychology Press, 44-66.

The IA formula is represented as follow:

<B> = <IA> = <I, W, K, KH, P, A, PC, S>


B     =  Behavior
IA   =  Intentional Action
I      =  Identity
W    =  Want
K     =  Know
KH  =  Know How
P     =  Performance
A     =  Achievement
PC   =  Person Characteristics
S      =  Significance

As a calculational system, operations can be performed on these parameters, such as, among others:

(a) Substitution, being an operation in which another behavior is used as the value of a parameter. An example of this is a description of Cognizant Action, in which the value of the K parameter is another <B>, as follows:

<B> = <IA> = <I, W, <B>, KH, P, A, PC, S>

(b) Deletion, being an operation in which a null value is assigned to one or more parameters. An example of this is a Performance Description in which the performance and achievement of a behavior are “emphasized” by assigning a null value (ɵ) to all other parameters – that is, a description in which the observer remains “agnostic” in regard to the actor’s intentions, the actor’s person characteristics, and the significance of the behavior, as follow:

<B> = <IA> = < ɵ, ɵ, ɵ, ɵ, P, A, ɵ, ɵ >

(c) Reduction, being an operation in which a sub-set of parameters are “collapsed” so as to treat them as a single parameter. Of particular relevance to this discussion, one such description resulting from reduction is the Cause-Effect description, which reduces the W, K and KH parameters to Cause and the P and A parameters to Effect, as follows:

<B> = <IA> = <I, C, C, C, E, E, ID, S>

As Ossorio notes in Outline of Descriptive Psychology for Personality Theory and Clinical Applications, 1970, (

“Reduction operations permit a formal simplification of the representation of behavior into a form which is representationally defective but often instrumentally valuable to a person” [emphasis added].

The critical issue is that there is, in fact, a C-E form of description that can be derived from the IA parameters (rather than C being a “thing”), and that descriptions of that sort have important utility in many circumstances, depending on the state-of-affairs in question, the Social Practices and Communities in which that description is being used, the purpose for the description, and the enhanced behavior potential that may result from precisely that type of description.  This is even the case for those C-E descriptions that describe physical components of states-of-affairs (e.g., “mechanisms”) as causes for behaviors.

One example of such a community, with associated social practices, is a medical community.  In that world, C-E descriptions are critical because they assign physical changes to the reduced “cause” parameter and physical or behavioral outcomes to the reduced “effect” parameter.  In medical communities such C-E descriptions are critical (i.e., there are pragmatically important reasons for describing the relationship between two states-of-affairs in this way).

Let’s take a couple of medical examples.  If someone becomes severely hyponatremic their behaviors will change in critical ways.  They will become confused, perhaps somnolent, their cognitive abilities will deteriorate, as well as other changes.  To the physician, the C-E description is critical because that description provides guidance (i.e., enhances the physician’s Behavior Potential) about what must be done.  The physician might offer a “first pass” C-E description as follows: “This patient’s erratic or irritable behaviors, notable because he is more angry at his wife than would ever typically be the case, are associated with low Na”.  The physician may then explore other C-E descriptions.  Perhaps the low Na is associated with dehydration – for example, after running a marathon.  In that case, only a normal saline drip may be prescribed.  Or, if not that, another C-E relationship may be explored, like kidney disease, congestive heart failure, etc.

However, there are two considerations to note here: (1) the C-E description, with C being a state-of-affairs comprised of objects, events, processes and other states-of-affairs, has “a point” because it provides guidance about intervention, that is, about “hypothesis testing.”  Any of us who have had the need to consult a physician may at times be happy or unhappy with the quality of the C-E descriptions that are offered for guidance, but we certainly would be even more unhappy to be working with a physician who never did so; (2) the status of the C-E description is that it, like other forms of description, has sufficient implications for further actions that make a difference (that is, it is “good enough”).

As another example, let’s take stroke.  Different stroke loci are predictably associated with different capacity changes (more on the distinction between capacity and behavior below).  If someone has a stroke with a specific left hemisphere lesion, they may no longer be able to generate words or generate them grammatically.  Another lesion may interfere with comprehension.  Another stroke may result in someone not being able to “understand” how objects fit together or how objects relate to one’s own body.  Another stroke may result in severe impairments of emotional regulation or the ability to appraise states-of-affairs having motivational significance (to use the “classic” DP example, always behaving as if there’s a lion in the room, or always behaving as if every behavior by another person is seen as provocation), or the inability to recognize and act “appropriately” on the significance of events and relationships in one’s world (i.e., to see “something” as being a case of “something else”).

However, these examples are a bit different from the hyponatremia example.  In these examples, it can be argued that physical changes are not associated with behavior change, per se, but instead with capacity changes and that new behavioral “repertoires” are expressions of those capacity changes.  In the context of the medical world, physical changes (i.e., a locus of lesion) can therefore be productively discussed using C-E descriptions, because those descriptions provide guidance about, say, the reasons that constrain behavioral choices, and therefore about potential interventions.  C-E descriptions can serve as short hand for pragmatically constructive guidance.

C-E description can certainly be used restrictively (i.e., reductionistically) (e.g., “all we are is our bodies and they dictate all of our behavior”), but that violation of good sense does not negate or undermine the value of C-E descriptions when they do provide constructive guidance, given states of affairs for which that guidance is of value.  In some clinical settings it would not be uncommon to hear statements like, “He’s irritable all the time because he’s in pain.”  The pain is not the cause of the irritability any more than is excessive noise at home that can never be escaped, or distress because the pain is incompatible with generating income for one’s family, or gnawing ruminations about the fact that the pain has never been ameliorated despite years of surgical interventions (themselves additionally painful), or perhaps even a self-status assignment as one who is always in pain and therefore not capable of engaging effectively in one’s world (persisting even after the pain has resolved). However, the C-E description an O chooses is a pragmatic decision that offers meaningful guidance. If O chooses to describe pain as the “cause” of irritability, it may be that nothing further can be done. Instead, choosing “excessive noise” as the targeted “cause” may lead to environmental change, or choosing self-status assignments as the “cause” may lead to effective behavioral interventions.

The use of a C-E description constitutes, for an Observer (O), making a decision about “level of analysis” in much the same way that an O might offer a specific description about the significance of another person’s behavior (given that there is a range of such significance descriptions that might be offered by that O, as circumstances change).  The specific significance description an O offers about another person’s behavior (i.e., an Actor, A) will be associated with differences in that A’s characteristics that are taken to be the case by O, the behaviors that O is willing to engage in relative to A, and the relationship they share. Under some circumstances, O’s significance description of A may lead O to intervene, with the intervention targeting the characteristics of A that O believes require change.

This approach, that is, treating C-E descriptions as pragmatic choices with consequences, is much along the lines of what is being pointed out by the classic distinction between “proximal” and “distal” causes, or saying something like “for want of a nail the war was lost”.  When confronted by the threat of a fire in the garage, I can say that the match or the kerosene didn’t cause the fire, or even that the state-of-affairs represented by the match coming into contact with the kerosene didn’t cause the fire, but under these circumstances I’d better formulate at least some C-E description that will allow me to intervene, or there will be a fire.  If my goal is to stop fires, I will use the C-E description to provide behavioral guidance that will decrease the likelihood that a subsequent dangerous state-of-affairs will occur.  This doesn’t mean that I can’t be wrong (as noted below), but by using the C-E description, much like a scientist engaged in hypothesis testing or perhaps like the practical “research” of everyday life (“I think he only yelled at me because that other guy jostled him” – clearly debatable, but of practical importance), I am able to act on distinctions about: (a) what will happen (i.e., what will change in turn) if I change elements in the state-of-affairs I describe as causal (“No matches allowed!” or “Let’s get out of this crowd”) and (b) assess whether or not the state-of-affairs I hoped for is achieved (“Hooray, no fire!”) or (“Hooray, we’re still friends!”).

For any C-E description (or any description, for that matter), there is no assurance that the “level of analysis” chosen will be correct, complete, compelling, or of potential value.  Depending on the circumstances in which a description has utility, an observer could just as easily focus on the poor behavioral habit of smoking as a “cause” for the explosion (“No Smoking”), or perhaps advertising that decreased the likelihood that someone will be able to stop smoking, even if they wished to (“If we want fewer fires, we need more public service announcements about stopping smoking”). However, every C-E description represents a pragmatic claim that can be “tested” behaviorally.  C-E descriptions, understood as descriptions and not as ontology, are useful, given the describer’s purpose, recognizing at all times, that for other purposes and other circumstances, different descriptive derivations from the IA formula may be of better use.

Although this discussion is “elementary” in the Descriptive Psychology world, it has great significance relative to understanding the relationship between Persons and Human Neurological Embodiment.

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2 Responses to Cause and Effect

  1. Greg Colvin says:


    On 01/03/2015 07:21 AM, Center for Descriptive Psychology and Social Neuroscience wrote: > > nlkirsch posted: “Dynamic neuroimaging techniques (e.g., fMRI) support > the exploration of neurological organization in response to behavioral > challenge tasks. Using these techniques it is possible to reveal > patterns of systematic variation in the allocation or deallocation” >

  2. Paul Zeiger says:

    Great start, Ned!

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