From Chapter 11 of Future Rising: A Journey from the Past to the Edge of Tomorrow
Causality forms the bedrock of how the universe works. Putting aside the first tumultuous moments after the big bang and some of the more esoteric oddities of quantum physics, the future largely looks the way it does because of events that happened in the past. No matter how convoluted and complex the threads tying the past, present, and future become, each past action sends ripples into the future that spark a cascade of sympathetic reactions.
We learn this pretty quickly growing up. Grab a hot pan, and it will burn. Eat putrid meat, and you’ll get sick. Needlessly insult people, and you’ll get the cold shoulder treatment.
This line between cause and effect means the future is molded and crafted by what’s happened in the past. Understanding this, we can begin to plan for what’s heading our way, and even begin to entertain the idea of influencing it. That is, if we can work out which “cause” levers in the present lead to desired future “effects.”
Making use of these threads between cause and effect is, of course, what underpins modern science and engineering. Scientists are remarkably good at asking “what if” questions that begin to unpack what the results of a set of actions or events might be, and using these to create theories and models that enable the future to be predicted. This is what scientific theories like Newton’s laws of motion and Einstein’s theory of relativity do.
But consciously understanding, measuring, modeling, and theorizing about cause and effect is only half the story. The other half is what we do with this knowledge. And this is where science and engineering enable us to use our conscious understanding of cause and effect to not only predict the future, but take a stab at changing it. It’s this ability to make causality work for us that is enabling us to feed a growing population, to control and eradicate devastating diseases, and to elevate the quality of life for billions of people.
On the flip side, it’s also what has enabled us to devise increasingly effective ways of harming the environment, and abusing and killing people. We should never assume that our mastery of cause and effect is, by default, benign.
Yet, while our ability to utilize causality has had a profound impact on humanity’s capacity to predict and control the future, this ability depends on something even more basic: our ability to remember and recall what happened in the past.