Saturday, October 18, 2008

More on nature/nurture

In this post I discussed John Derbyshire and the state of the nature/nurture debate.

There are two points about the nature/nurture debate that have always struck me. The first is the manner in which, and this is typical of modern philosophy, the most important points are simply assumed and all the energy is spent debating points of secondary significance. The "human sciences", for example, take it for granted that man can be explained entirely in terms of nature or nurture or some combination of the two, as though these two alternatives self-evidently exhaust the possibilities. Barack Obama, for example, is explained by John Derbyshire entirely in terms of nurture (his mind was "set that way" by cultural Marxism, says Derbyshire.) My point in the prior post was that Derbyshire's explanation of Obama contradicts his own thesis, which is that genetics explains at least half of personal differences.

But why must Obama's political views necessarily be a product of either his genes or his environment? Might not his political views be a product of rational thought, a process that transcends both genes and environment? What is self-evident, surely, is that man cannot be explained entirely in terms of nature and/or nurture. Why does Barack Obama believe in the Pythagorean Theorem? Not even John Derbyshire, I think, would say that it is due to his genes or his environment, as though Obama were raised in "cultural geometry" the way he was allegedly raised in "cultural Marxism." We recognize that geometry transcends culture, and genes, and that the rational process by which we understand geometry is not reducible to either genes or environment. Is it not at least possible that political thought can also transcend genes and environment?

This brings me to my second point, which is that if we accept that man is entirely a causal product of his genes and/or his environment, then the nature/nurture argument is pointless in any event. For then man is a slave one way or the other; a slave to his genes or a slave to his environment. And it's not only Barack Obama's political thought that is enslaved, but also John Derbyshire's thought about Barack Obama's thought, and my thought about both Obama and Derbyshire. There is no escape from this slavery, and in the end the identity of the master, whether it be nature or nurture or Descartes' Evil Demon or a space alien or something else, must be a matter of impenetrable mystery to us. For our thought about the identity of the master is itself enslaved to the master, and therefore subject to his (its?) manipulation. My genes may determine my thinking, but there is no a priori guarantee that my genes will let me in on the fact.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Derb on Obama and human sciences

It's amazing the manner in which atheist/skeptic types routinely fail to appreciate the logic of their own positions. Case in point: John Derbyshire, the village atheist at National Review, and his article on Obama and the human sciences.

According to Derb, the old nature/nurture argument has been settled by science, and nature is the winner.
Most people still think of human-science controversies in terms of nature/nurture. As a matter of real scientific dispute, that is all long gone. Nature/nurture arguments were at the heart of the sociobiology wars that roiled the human sciences through the last third of the 20th century. (The 2000 book Defenders of Truth, by the Finnish sociologist of science Ullica SegerstrĂ„le gives a full — and so far as I can judge, very fair — account.) The dust of battle has pretty much settled now, in science departments if not in the popular press, and nature is the clear victor. Name any universal characteristic of human nature, including cognitive and personality characteristics. Of all the observed variation in that characteristic, about half is caused by genetic differences.

That's bad for left-wingers, says Derb, because central to their politics is the notion that inequality is entirely due to environmental and social factors. But if the human sciences show that the most signficant factor in determining the course of an individual's life is his genes, then the rug is pulled out from under all those grand liberal plans to produce universal equality through government intervention.

Derb thinks that if Obama is elected, he may make moves to squelch research in the human sciences, since those sciences are producing results unfavorable to his politics. Why does Obama favor such leftwing politics? Given the arguments he just made, we would expect Derb to answer this question in terms of genetics. After all, genetics allegedly explains at least half of personal differences. But Derb attributes nothing of Obama's politics to genetics; the causal origin of Obama's politics, Derb says, is entirely a matter of nurture:
Barack Obama was raised in an atmosphere of “cultural Marxism.” His mind was set that way, and he retained the essential precepts of the creed into adult life, as his close association with somewhat-more-than-cultural Marxist Bill Ayers illustrates (as of course do Obama’s remarks quoted above).

Those all-powerful genes are apparently utterly helpless in the face of an "atmosphere" of cultural Marxism. Derb's argument is typical of determinists. They start by claiming human life is determined by some non-rational cause (genes, the clockwork Newtonian universe, the Fates, the stars - it doesn't really matter), and make their argument entirely in the abstract. Then when they come to some specific matter of actual importance, the causal framework they just constructed is completely abandoned and they explain things in terms of the rational causes they just denied.