Thursday, June 15, 2006

Catching up to naturalism

Eventually, it will be a commonplace that most things, including human behavior, can be understood as resulting from a sufficient set of causes, that is, most things are determined. Although people commonsensically invoke causation in all sorts of ways, they generally don't go all the way in admitting they and their actions can be understood as consequences of antecedent conditions that ultimately they didn't have control over. Indeed, understanding things at the macro level above quantum phenomena requires citing causes and being deterministic, there's just no way around it. (Gary Drescher in his new book Good and Real says determinism goes right down into the quantum level.)

The New York Times published an article today by Amy Harmon, That Wild Streak? Maybe It Runs in the Family, which gets well into one half of the causal story behind human behavior - genetics (lots of links to actual studies in the online version). What's striking is the extent to which she covers the implications of genetic causation for our notions of praise and blame, stigma, responsibility, control, willpower and excuses. She cites many instances in which individuals feel relief that what might otherwise be considered a self-chosen character flaw, or failure to exert willpower, is now properly seen as at least partially a matter of genetic vulnerability, for instance to obesity, addiction, risk-taking and attention deficit disorder. Of course, others are upset that telling the genetic side of the story of their good behavior robs them of credit. Bottom line: the realm of responsibility for which the agent takes credit and blame shrinks as we learn of the genetic contribution to their vices and virtues. As Harmon suggests, the "power of the human spirit" (that is, willpower) is under siege.

But of course genetics is only half the story. The other 50% (more or less, depending on what traits or behavior we're talking about) is environmental, and as BF Skinner demonstrated years ago, the environment is just as determining, just as causal, as genetics. Harmon could do the same story over again, but simply look at the environmental contributions to the same behaviors: the role of food advertising and availability in obesity, the effect of peer groups in promoting or reducing criminality, the rise of video games in lowering the threshold for real violence, the marketing of extreme sports in encouraging risk-taking, etc., etc.

Once we get both the genetic and environmental stories told, what's happened to the person who takes credit and blame? The person is still there, of course, but now she's pretty much explained (never fully of course, given the practical gaps in our understanding). Explanations reveal the self-caused, bootstrapping, radically individualist self for the Western myth that it is, which leads to a more compassionate and effective stance in dealing with human faults and frailties, and less uncritical awe of the successful. The winners in the game of life we understand as ultimately just lucky in their endowments, genetic and environmental.

Even though explanations explain where people's virtues come from, what they don't do is "trivialize their skills and accomplishments" as Harmon suggests they might near the end of her piece. Getting good at something like ballet still requires hard work and effort, for which we can justly praise someone: we mightily appreciate such skill, after all, and we want to encourage it. But exerting effort doesn't involve anything magical that transcends causality. The desire to work hard comes from some place after all, for instance genetically acquired gumption or luckily encountered role models, not out of the blue or from self-chosen willpower.

So, once Harmon writes the story about environmental determinism, and draws the implications of causal explanations for our notions of self, free will, credit and blame, the Times will be fully caught up to naturalism, and it will seem dead obvious. Then there's the rest of the country, but all in due course...


Blogger BlackSun said...

Have you read "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker? He pretty much shows the environmental factors don't amount to much. Twin studies have validated his premise.

Also, with regard to video games, I think it's just as plausible that kids actually commit lower levels of real violence by having the outlet in violent games. I'm a big proponent of the expression of the human shadow. (If it's not expressed, it will come out in even more dangerous ways.) And our genetic heritage includes a lot of violence (which could explain the incredible popularity of such games).

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Jun 24, 2006, 7:46:00 PM  

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