Thursday, December 06, 2012

Determined, Partially Determined: Understanding Networks of Influence in the Nature vs Nature argument

By Gary Berg-Cross

One of the discussion topics after Chis Mooney’s presentation on The Republican Brain  concerned determinism.  One questioner framed a question about genetics “partially determining” ones personality, ideological stance etc. This was a gestured to by Simone Amselli in her blog on Mooney’ presentations:

“Mooney’s theory is somewhat deterministic: ‘our political inclination is dictated by the configuration of our brain’. This seems to be the conclusion Mooney is aiming at.

However determinism is a huge subject… and a lot can be said about it. Even the cultural context can be deterministic.”

Both Chris and I were more than a little uncomfortable with a verbal concept like “partially determined.”  This seems counter to the very idea of determinism which argues that for any happening there are conditions such that, given those conditions (say a set of genes), nothing else could happen. 

What people who propose “partially determinism might mean is that events are affected by a factor or as Chris said “influenced.”  Genetics and environment are huge factors involved in driving human behavior.  They certainly interact and they have many components that interact over time. An interactionist model, contrasted to pure genetic or environmental ones is shown in the 3 part graphic below.


As developmentalist  Jerome Kagan put it to broaden the nature vs nature issue:

Genes and family may determine the foundation of the house, but time and place determine its form.
That’s a much better model for what is going on than determinism by either single factor approach.

So part of what the research that Chris reports on is saying is that from things like twin studies we understand the 2 sides and their interactions better.

“Nature, we are starting to realize, is every bit as important as nurture. Genetic influences, brain chemistry, and neurological de velopment contribute strongly to who we are as children and what we become as adults. For example, tendencies to excessive worrying or timidity, leadership qualities, risk taking, obedience to authority, all appear to have a constitutional aspect.” Stanley Turecki

This general idea of interaction is an important way of understanding complex phenomena (like obesity).  Take climate change.  In a November 01, 2012 article in Business Week  Paul M. Barrett declared after Hurricane Sandy - It's Global Warming, Stupid.  The article  quotes Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota explaining how to understand the influence of climate change on a storm like Sandy:

“Would this kind of storm happen without climate change? Yes. Fueled by many factors. Is storm stronger because of climate change? Yes.”

Eric Pooley, senior VP of the Environmental Defense Fund (and former deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek), explained it using a baseball analogy that we all might understand:

“We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

And we can go way beyond that frame to understand some of the factors that influence something like a storm. Mark Fischetti of Scientific American summarized the broadening consensus about the mechanistic factors:

“Climate change amps up other basic factors that contribute to big storms. For example, the oceans have warmed, providing more energy for storms. And the Earth’s atmosphere has warmed, so it retains more moisture, which is drawn into storms and is then dumped on us.

Do sure climate scientists agreed that it's difficult to link a single weather event to global warming but many agree that the damage caused by Sandy was worse because of rising sea levels.

Climate change itself is multi-determined and involves factors combine to produce climate change and global warming, greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons and nitrous oxide. And the model isn’t as simple as a one directional factor influence. It is more like a network of factors with some factors feeding back to affect other factors. So while climate is always changing, understanding recent changes starts with human generated increases of greenhouse gases.  These hold in heat which in turn warms the atmosphere and oceans.  But there is feedback, since as temperatures warm, the area of the Earth covered by light reflecting ice shrinks.  With less ice in polar regions, more of the sun's energy is absorbed by Earth, further warming the climate, which leads to still more ice melt.
It’s a network of influence.  And so is the gene-environment situation.  We shouldn’t think of it as 2 modular, isolated items. When we step closer we see a biological-development network. And there are structures and mechanism at work. Cells for example. In bio-organisms, most cellular components exert a  functional influnce through interactions with other cellular components. And in complex organisms we have complex organs. We humans have a complex brain. We know a bit about the neural interconnections there, but there are also interconnections at brain component such as the amygdale and neo-cortex.

All of this is not well covered by simple terms like “determined.”  We need to slowly develop a vocabulary to understand these better and not force arguments into Procrustean beds that lop off part of real understanding to fit binary views of reality. Opposing ideas are easy parts of a debate, and can start understanding but often evolve into larger understanding.
All part of open inquiry and a life of learning.

The burgeoning field of computer science has shifted our view of the physical world from that of a collection of interacting material particles to one of a seething network of information. In this way of looking at nature, the laws of physics are a form of software, or algorithm, while the material world—the hardware—plays the role of a gigantic computer.  P.C.W. Davies
'Laying Down the Laws', New Scientist. In Clifford A. Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them (2008)


Gene-environment interaction:
Tangle of nature vs nurture:


Bill Creasy said...

For Daniel Dennett's views on free will and determinism, read the summary that I wrote about his talk at Johns Hopkins University. It will be in the January issue of WASHline.

Explicit Atheist said...

I think it is both conceptually coherent and probably true that complex phenomena such as the climate and our behaviors are determined (which may, or may not be, fully synonymous with pre-determined), and I see nothing in your examples or arguments that properly leads to the conclusion that the concept of outcomes being determined is incoherent or otherwise inapplicable. Complexity is not inconsistent with determinism. Also, I think "partially determined" may be technically correct, but certainly not in the free-will sense (or even the genetics versus environment sense) that most people deploy the term. Instead, there is an underlying small scale randomness so that if we rewind the clock and run it again there may be some small short term random differences in outcomes, and like falling dominoes these small differences would tend to sometimes spread into larger scale differences over time. Of course, we can't rewind the clock to verify this, but we see randomness on the smallest scales while we see determinism predominating on the larger scales, so this "determined but not entirely pre-determined" mixture seems to me to be a logical 1+1=2 conclusion, unless we uncover evidence otherwise in the future. Particle and wave behaviors co-exist, particles remain entangled with each other regardless of distance, and similarly "contradictory" results co-exist, so why not a co-existence of indeterminism and determinism?

Don Wharton said...

The conception of free will as uncaused choice is conceptually incoherent and just plain wrong. Much of the article considered partial determinism based on gnetic or environmental factors. If we consider only part of the potential sources of causation then the results of necessity are only partially determined by those causes. Particles may continue to be entagled with each other over significant distances but only if there is no interaction with other particles or energy. In terms of normal life quantum entaglement has only the briefest and most minor implications. Synaptic events in our brains are already massively greater in scale than most events that are ambiguous due to quantum effects. Obviously there remains some small differences that will be different due the rolling of dice implicit in quantum mechanics. My understanding is that it is likely that the multiverse conception of all possible future outcomes being true is likely to be valid. Thus it would not matter which way the dice rolls. Both universes are likely to exist and both are fully determined, just in slightly different ways.