Is that smoke really the cause of your problem?

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I was listening to a great conversation between Sam Harris and David Chalmers on the nature of consciousness, when they raised the notion of the epiphenomenon.

An epiphenomenon is something which happens (a phenomenon) alongside, or at the same time as something else you’re observing (the primary phenomenon).

They gave a great example of the smoke that will rise out of the top of an old steam locomotive as it moves. You might notice that when it’s still, there’s no smoke, but that when it moves (especially quickly), a lot of smoke will appear.

If you didn’t know how a train worked, you might then infer, that the smoke coming out of the top of the locomotive is what makes it move.

But we know that’s not right.

The smoke is a byproduct of the fire which boils the water for steam which in turn produces the movement of the train. The smoke is an epiphenomenon.

It just happens that there’s smoke when the train is moving, but that doesn’t mean that the smoke causes the movement of the train.

It made me then wonder: in how many other areas of our life are we looking at the smoke and thinking it’s making the train move?

How often are we looking at the epiphenomenon and confusing it with the cause of the primary phenomenon?

This awareness won’t always stop us from making the mistake of confusing the two, but at least it gives us a framework for asking “Is this the cause of the problem, or is it just smoke?”

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