We consider the problem of identifying the causal direction between two discrete random variables using observational data. Unlike previous work, we keep the most general functional model but make an assumption on the unobserved exogenous variable: Inspired by Occam's razor, we assume that the exogenous variable is simple in the true causal direction. We quantify simplicity using Rényi entropy. Our main result is that, under natural assumptions, if the exogenous variable has low H0 entropy (cardinality) in the true direction, it must have high H0 entropy in the wrong direction. We establish several algorithmic hardness results about estimating the minimum entropy exogenous variable. We show that the problem of finding the exogenous variable with minimum H1 entropy (Shannon Entropy) is equivalent to the problem of finding minimum joint entropy given n marginal distributions, also known as minimum entropy coupling problem. We propose an efficient greedy algorithm for the minimum entropy coupling problem, that for n = 2 provably finds a local optimum. This gives a greedy algorithm for finding the exogenous variable with minimum Shannon entropy. Our greedy entropy-based causal inference algorithm has similar performance to the state of the art additive noise models in real datasets. One advantage of our approach is that we make no use of the values of random variables but only their distributions. Our method can therefore be used for causal inference for both ordinal and also categorical data, unlike additive noise models.

Acknowledgements

This work has been supported by NSF Grants CCF 1344179, 1344364, 1407278, 1422549, ARO YIP W911NF-14-1-0258, NSF-1564167 and NSF-1559997. The work of Babak Hassibi has been supported in part by the National Science Foundation under grants CNS-0932428, CCF-1018927, CCF-1423663 and CCF-1409204, by a grant from Qualcomm Inc., by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory through the President and Director's Fund, and by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.